HAVERHILL — Three incumbents faced off against three challengers in the race for three seats on the School Committee and when it was over, one newcomer unseated one incumbent.
Toni Sapienza-Donais, a 40-year Haverhill teacher and principal took the third spot, beating Sven Amirian by a narrow margin of 4,268 votes to 4,203.
Sapienza-Donais celebrated at Maria's Restaurant, the same venue where Mayor James Fiorentini celebrated his election night victory against challenger Daniel Trocki and where School Committeeman Scott Wood celebrated his second place finish behind top vote-getter Gail Sullivan.
Sullivan garnered 5,895 votes to Wood's 5,584, earning her a second term in office.
Amirian was also seeking a second, four-year term in office while Wood was running for a fifth term.
Two political newcomers fell shy of winning seats on the School Committee, but made impressive showings nevertheless.
Retired economist Thomas Grannemann hoped to bring his skills in financial management and experience managing large public budgets to the School Committee, but landed in fifth place with 3,686 votes.
Stephanie Lyn Viola, an education support professional (paraprofessional educator) who worked in Haverhill's school system but now works in Merrimac's school system, was looking to be a voice for Haverhill's children and educators, but she came in last with 3,276 votes.
The School Committee has six members who serve four-year terms, with three members up for reelection every two years. The mayor, as chairman, serves as moderator and has the tie-breaking vote.
Members are paid $8,250 per year.
The district is facing big money decisions, notably whether to build new schools to replace the Whittier Middle and Consentino School in the next five years. It will be up to the School Committee to push for the projects.
Incumbents and candidates also expressed concerns with issues, including ensuring students are reading at grade level, improving academic performance, ensuring teachers and other staff feel appreciated and respected and ensuring children feel safe in their school buildings.
"I'm not a politician. I ran as an educator with the community and students at heart," Sapienza-Donais said.
Sapienza-Donais comes from a family of Haverhill educators. Her father, Tony Sapienza, began instructing math at Haverhill High School in 1960 and in 1974 became the math department head.
"All I can think of is how proud my dad would be to have his daughter on the School Committee," Sapienza-Donais said. "After a 40 year career as an educator in Haverhill, I think people came to know who I am. Some residents I met told me I had them as students and that I also had their children as students and that I made a difference in their lives."
Wood said he was grateful for the overwhelming show of support from voters.
"I think voters made clear they want a School Committee member who is willing to ask tough questions and make people accountable," Wood said.
His parents, Scott Wood Sr. and Cheryl Wood, were there for a brief time to share in their son's victory.
"My mom is fighting a tough battle with Parkinson's disease and I wanted to make her proud as she's my hero," Scott Wood Jr. said.
Sullivan celebrated her victory at the Peddler's Daughter restaurant, which is around the corner from Maria's Restaurant. She credited her track record on the School Committee and 40 years of experience as an educator for her high vote count.
"I think I've done an excellent job as a School Committee member," Sullivan said. "I'm a good and decent person and never say anything bad about anyone online as all I care about is the children of Haverhill. I have no other political ambitions."