Crowded ballots, challenges to incumbents who had waltzed back into office without opposition four years ago and tough rhetoric on the campaign trail seemed to promise that a very different St. Tammany Parish School Board would emerge from Tuesday's election.
Unlike 2014, when no incumbents were challenged and only one district saw an election, only five board members were returned without opposition this year.
But even with the results in, it's not clear whether the minimum of six new faces on the 15-member board will signal a change in direction for the large suburban school system that prides itself on being the reason many people move to St. Tammany.
Two longtime incumbents did lose re-election bids to newcomers, and a third was forced into a Dec. 8 runoff.
Peggy Seeley, who has represented the Pearl River-area District 8 for two terms, will be in a runoff with Mike Winkler, who recently retired as principal of Pearl River High School. If he wins, that would mean nearly half of the board will be newcomers.
Incumbent Robert Womack, who faced three challengers, was edged out of a runoff in his Slidell-area district by retired teacher Tammy Lamy and Maurice Doucette.
Willie Jeter, a former coach, teacher and administrator, was ousted from his Lacombe-area seat by Shelta Richardson, a newcomer to the area who had teamed up with six other candidates on a common campaign that was highly critical of the current board and stressed the need for greater independence and transparency.
But Richardson was the only one of that group, which called itself MEGA, for Make Education Great Again, to prevail at the ballot box.
Other MEGA members who took on incumbents were trounced in a couple of races, with District 2 candidate Lynne Craven getting only 23 percent of the vote in the Covington district; incumbent and retired teacher Beth Heintz got 77 percent. In District 4, incumbent Jack Loup got an even higher share — 79 percent — against his MEGA challenger, Alicia Breaux.
Even Sharon Lo Drucker, the incumbent for District 9 in the Madisonville area, drubbed her MEGA challenger, Meg Good Hackney, despite Drucker's pending trial on a misdemeanor shoplifting charge.
Jeter, who fell to the MEGA candidate, said he thinks some voters believe that a new member can get on the School Board and change things, which he said isn't true. But he also said he was puzzled by some of the rhetoric critical of the current board.
Working together with the superintendent and staff is what successful school boards do, he said. "If you are a good system bordering on greatness, I don't understand that (critical) narrative," he said.
Some turnover was guaranteed from the outset, with four long-term incumbents choosing not to seek re-election. But in three of those cases, candidates backed by the outgoing board member were elected easily.
Neal Hennegan, who has represented the Mandeville-area District 1 since 1995, endorsed Matthew Greene, who won with 57 percent of the vote over two other candidates.
Charles Harrell will be succeeded by his son, Charles Brandon Harrell, to represent District 5 in the Abita Springs area. The son got 71 percent of the vote against Lee Barrios, a retired teacher who has been a persistent critic of the School Board.
James Braud, who beat two other candidates for the Slidell-area District 13 seat, said he was actually recruited to run by current member Robin Mullet.
Only Mary K. Bellisario, who has represented Slidell-area District 15 since 1995, didn't see her choice succeed her. Lisa Page beat Bellisario's choice, Robert Broome, as well as Marie Wade, a MEGA candidate.
Seeley, who is gearing up for her runoff, said she does anticipate a change in the School Board, simply because there will be different personalities and different people with different agendas.
But, she said, the turnover means continuity will also be important and, if she wins, she'd like to be a resource for freshman board members.
Winkler said his campaign message will remain the same in the runoff: The school system needs to help teachers do their job. While much of the talk at candidate forums has focused on the budget, he said, most of that money goes to teachers, and decisions are being made by people who've never been in the classroom. He said he knows the central office staff well after years as an assistant principal and principal and believes that they'll listen to him when it comes to teachers' needs.
Braud said he doesn't really know if there will be much change on the board since he is not part of what he termed the "old guard." But the software engineer and father of 10 said he thinks criticism that the board always agrees with the administration is more perception than reality, with more back-and-forth and debate taking place than people realize. Still, more checks and balances are needed, he said, and his job is to "look at everything."
Richardson acknowledged that as the only MEGA candidate to win a seat, she faces an uphill battle in pressing for change, such as demands for increased transparency, including a forensic audit of the school system.
But she said the defeated MEGA candidates aren't going to disband and will continue to work for change as private citizens. Some of the winning candidates share some of the group's values, she said, and she plans to support the runoff bids of Lamy and Seeley.
"You can make change; it may be harder," with all of her MEGA colleagues defeated, she said. "I'm going in, to some extent, a lion's den. ... I do know I have an uphill battle, but I feel good about the battle, and it's a worthy cause."
Barrios said that newly elected School Board members need to realize that eight votes are needed to act on anything of substance.
"Who's going to be a leader? Who is going to be outspoken?" she asked. "I'm going to be waiting to see."