With no major issues or philosophical schism dividing them, the two candidates for the only seat that will be vacant on the Howard County School Board are counting on subtle differences in style and background to capture votes next month.
The race was thrown wide open earlier this year when board member Stanley Stalett, the only one of five members facing election this year, announced that he would not seek a second, six-year term.
Allen Swanson, 36, of Columbia, a speech pathologist in the Baltimore County School system, filed for the seat in February and was joined a week later by Anne Dodd, 39, who serves as village manager for Kings Contrivance, a Columbia subdivision.
In public forums since then, both candidates have stressed their backgrounds and experience as their strongest qualifications for the job.
Dodd, 39, was educated at Stratford College in Virginia and attended the University of Madrid. She received her B.A. degree from Radford College in Virginia, and has taught Spanish and English in Virginia public schools.
Swanson, 36, graduated from Hiram College in Ohio and received a master's degree in speech pathology from Kent State University. He has taught in the Baltimore County public school system since 1974 and specializes in working with physically and intellectually disabled students.
"We've differed on approaches to many issues and priorities perhaps, but there is probably no major issue dividing us," Dodd said. "I don't know that there is any great philosophical difference either."
Sorting out the two candidates will be even tougher this year because the county's numerous political clubs have agreed not to endorse a candidate in the nonpartisan school board race.
Even Stalett has shied away from expressing a favorite.
"I know both candidates and I think either would make a good board member," he said. "I've really appreciated the way both of them have attempted to get involved with school issues."
The county school system went through a period of declining enrollments, and as a result, some schools were closed last year. But enrollments have stabilized and increased slightly this year.
The most important task facing the board outside of preparing its annual budget is the drafting of a new 10-year plan to guide the development of education in the county, Salett said.
The plan will deal with such issues as computers in the schools, the role of gifted and talented programs and how to improve the quality of school curriculum.
That task, many agree, will be an arduous one and both candidates say they are best equipped to handle it.
Swanson said he has attended almost every board meeting in the past two years, points to his experience as vice chairman of the board's citizen advisory committee.
Dodd cites her experience as a teacher and notes that she has dealt with multimillion-dollar budgets as a member of the budget committee of the Columbia Association, which governs the sprawling new-town development.
Both candidates favor increasing teacher salaries and spending money on gifted and talented programs.
Swanson said his first priority as a board member would be to increase citizen participation. Dodd said she would like to see more emphasis placed on writing and literature in the classroom.
Both candidates say they support academic programs as well as atheletic programs, and neither believes one should be cut to aid the other.
If the two candidates differ at all, it is perhaps on the role of the teacher's union in budget negotiations. Swanson said he favors opening negotiations between teachers and the board to the public. Dodd said she was skeptical of such a proposal, calling it potentially counterproductive.
Dodd said she also would stress lowering class sizes and advocates setting up day-care centers for the children of teachers and administrators in county school buildings.
"It's been a campaign that has not been negative," Swanson said. "I think it will come down to which one of us can demonstrate the most commitment to the job."