Lara Salmon Ellingson Joe O’Reilly Kiana Marie Sears

Voters appear to have returned incumbent Kiana Marie Sears to the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board – and sent Lara Salmon Ellingson and Joe O’Reilly with her, according to unofficial results from last week’s election.

From the time the first batch of results were released by the County Recorder, Sears held on to 19 percent of the vote that put her at the head of pack the six candidates vying for the three seats on the five-person board. 

She maintained that position with the latest tally released by the Recorder’s Office Friday morning, just before the Tribune’s deadline.

Ellingson – an MPS substitute teacher who had been a fulltime teacher in the district and the daughter of former Congressman and well known East Valley leader Matt Salmon – also held her second-place position in balloting with 18 percent throughout the vote counting.

But the third spot was nip-and-tuck between O’Reilly, a longtime MPS administrator before he becoming director of the Arizona State University Decision Center for Educational Excellence, and Cara Mae Schnepf Steiner, a retired MPS teacher and elementary principal.

Both Steiner and O’Reilly held 17 percent of the vote from the first results release and for a while Steiner was slightly ahead. But O’Reilly took over the third spot with about a 300-vote margin on Thursday and then widened his lead to 1,129 votes by Friday.

Steiner was already conceding on her Facebook page before Friday’s results, congratulating the winners and thanking her supporters.

In other results, Mesa’s delegation to the State Legislature will be virtually unchanged in terms of its party composition – as will the East Valley’s delegation as a whole.

Republicans won in LD25 and LD16, where Democrats failed to even put up a full slate of candidates, while Democrats coasted to victories in LD18 and LD25, which includes small portions of Mesa.

Republican lawmakers were so confident there would be no major change in the overall party makeup of the Legislature, where they control both chambers, that they already have reelected Mesa Rep. Rusty Bowers as House Speaker.

The overall makeup of the East Valley delegation also remains the same, including in Chandler’s LD17 – home of Arizona’s most expensive campaign this election cycle.

After more than $3 million were spent by independent groups opposing and supporting incumbent Republican J.D. Mesnard, the longtime legislator won a second term in the Senate, defeating challenge Ajlan AJ Kurdoglu by a wider margin 52-48, than he defeated his 2018 rival.

What will change is the party makeup on the five-man Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, where Democrat Jevin Hodge ousted former Chandler Council member Jack Sellers, who had been hoping to get elected to a full four-year term after his appointment to the seat in January 2018.

Democrats still have a chance at the Tribune’s deadline to gain a 3-2 command of the board because Republican incumbent Bill Gates was in a see-saw race with his Democratic challenger and was leading by only about 300 votes.

Sears, a Mesa resident for more than two decades whose daughters are Red Mountain High School grads, took her seat on the board in 2017 after winning her first election the previous year.

She holds a masters degree in public administration and has been a longtime community advocate who has been active in public policy activities statewide and locally.

Ellingson has four children in Mesa schools – from second grade to a junior in high school – and is a graduate of Mesa schools with bachelor’s and masters degrees in education. Besides her teaching gigs in MPS, Ellingson also has been a PTO president and his on the School Improvement Advisory Council at her kids’ elementary school.

 Besides her strong belief in the importance of a quality education, she said her other motivation to seek a board seat was a desire to see the district move to a more phonics-based reading program rather than a whole language approach. 

She also described herself as having a strong interest in special education as well as having a determination to ensure that tax dollars are primarily geared to benefit children.

O’Reilly for 30 years was director of MPS’ s Research and Evaluation Department and Student Achievement Support before moving to ASU and has remained active in the district’s largest scholarship program, helping hundreds of Mesa high school grads get to college.

He said his goal is to help the district “rebuild the trust that has been the bedrock of Mesa’s success for decades.”

He also told the Tribune he spent years working on MPS’ budgets “so I know where the money comes from and where it goes” and vowed to use his experience with complex educational data to create information that would lead to sound board decisions and intelligible communication with teachers, administrators and parents.

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