The six candidates running for the Montgomery County Board of Education sounded like a single broken record last week as they presented their positions before an audience at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.
One after another they advocated reducing class size, increasing teachers' salaries, improving academic standards and squeezing the county for more revenues.
"They are suffering from what I call the 'Social Security syndrome,' " said Barbara Ward, a parent who attended the forum. "Nobody wants to be against it. All the issues they discuss are things everyone will support."
The election campaign is a contrast to the 1982 race, when school closures and busing to achieve racial integration were the subjects of heated debate. Those debates drew attention to the differences between liberal and conservative candidates, who accused one another of being racist or too liberal.
"The community does not want to see disharmony this year. They want candidates who are ladies and gentlemen," said Nancy Wiecking, an undaunted watchdog of the school board's activities, who attended the forum. "The problem is, you can't get to the issues."
There are six candidates running for three seats on the seven-member board. Since the 1982 election, which ousted a conservative majority, the board has been dominated by liberals.
That majority is not threatened in this election, because the two conservative members, Marian Greenblatt and Suzanne Peyser, are vacating their seats this year. Liberal Blair Ewing, the only incumbent running for reelection, is likely to win, if his hefty first-place lead in the primary -- he won almost 10,000 votes more than the second-place winner -- continues.
Below the surface, there are nuances that distinguish the six candidates, however. Of the three endorsed by EDPAC, a bipartisan political action committee formed in 1981 to topple the Greenblatt-led majority, Mary Margaret Slye, a former teacher, has a larger conservative following than the other two on her slate, incumbent Ewing and the only black candidate in the race, Marshall Grigsby, an assistant dean at Howard University Divinity School.
Slye "has some overtones of a conservative point of view," said EDPAC president Keith Prouty. He said she was seen by the group as more likely to work better with other members of the school board.
DiFonzo, a second vice president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, lost EDPAC's endorsement to Slye by only seven votes out of about 100 cast. She has won the endorsement of the county's largest Hispanic coalition and Slye has not.
Grisby won a close third position in the primary behind Slye and in front of DiFonzo. He is a strong supporter of EDPAC and the school board priorities.
Both he and Slye say the only differences between slate members is Grisby's belief that there is no such thing as an average student, and that schools must meet the special needs of students. Slye, in contrast, contends that schools must pay more attention to typical students, who, in her belief, get lost among the specialized programs.
Richard Claypoole, a senior executive for the Office of the Federal Register, and Flora Adams, a retired elementary schoolteacher, are the more conservative candidates, but they have said they support the current board's priorities.
Adams is a less enthusiastic supporter of the board's integration policy because it requires busing some students away from neighborhood schools.
"I think I would be obligated to stand behind the board's commitment to racial integration , even if I don't believe in it," she said.
Claypoole, who has a son in one of the system's magnet school clusters, said he has reservations about the magnet program. Magnet schools offer programs unavailable elsewhere in the hope of attracting students.
Despite these differing views, it may take voters some close scrutiny to decipher the real differences in this election. At the Walt Whitman forum, the candidates indirectly acknowledged that their differences are a matter of degree.
"Thank you for finishing my sentence," DiFonzo said to Slye as DiFonzo's time was up and Slye began her response on the same theme. "That's what I thought you were going to say," Slye said, in finishing her remarks.