The District's four alternative public schools held a campaign forum Monday night and 17 people showed up to listen to 12 candidates.

In Wards 5 and 7, where school board campaigns have attracted the most attention, debates in the past week have drawn audiences of 19, 32 and 15.

There is a school board election Tuesday, and while many of the city's utility poles lately have sprouted campaign posters, frustrated candidates criss-cross the District in search of voter interest. They haven't found much.

"The election has been a pretty well-kept secret," said Rod Boggs, counsel for Parents United, an activist group. "I haven't detected much interest."

"None of the incumbents appear to be in trouble," said William Simons, president of the Washington Teachers' Union. "I guess the community is pretty much satisfied with the progress of the school system."

School board elections never have attracted nearly as many voters as do mayoral or council races in Washington. As little as 15 percent of the electorate has turned out for recent elections. This year, heavy publicity on the proposed bottle bill has some school politicians hoping for a better showing than the 48,000 voters who cast ballots in 1985.

There has been little interest among candidates, either. While 19 people are running for six seats, several incumbents drew only token opposition -- from candidates who have attended few forums and spent little, if any, money.

Some incumbents have been around long enough to have some name recognition. But for the most part, Tuesday's votes will be based on perceptions born of street posters, calls from campaign phone banks and voters' guides published by nonpartisan groups and news organizations.At Large

The only citywide school board race finds incumbent Eugene Kinlow pitted against two challengers, both newcomers to elective politics.

Kinlow, a 47-year-old two-term board member who is deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and chairman of the city's Black Men's Forum, stresses the need for greater parenting skills and his close involvement with pressing social issues facing the schools.

As chairman of the student services committee, Kinlow shepherded through the board's new policies on AIDS, discipline, student health clinics and tougher grade requirements for students who play on athletic teams. He stresses accountability, telling audiences it was he who tied Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie's pay raises to student test scores and arguing in favor of merit pay for teachers.

His merit pay stance cost Kinlow the teachers union endorsement, according to Simons. The union chose to make no endorsement in the at-large race, because neither challenger seemed impressive, he said.

Paul Burke, a social science researcher for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is a former teacher in West Africa and the only challenger in any race who regularly attends school board meetings.

Burke, 39, visits schools around the city and churns out detailed position papers on textbooks (calling for a 1 percent budget increase to triple the number of books available to students) and teacher training (proposing smaller course loads and formal interschool visits).

Dr. David Dabney, a psychiatrist who has been a substitute teacher in the D.C. schools, is running an alliterative campaign with the slogan "Classes for the Masses." Each letter in the word "classes" stands for a list of subjects Dabney seeks to emphasize. For example, C stands for conduct, classics, civics, Constitution, computers, communications and careers.

Dabney, 60, proposes to foster peer pressure for achievement by sending outstanding students to Stockholm to watch the Nobel Prize ceremonies and by offering other trips to students who write the best papers on topics such as the history of jazz and affirmative action.

Dabney says he does not intend to spend more than $250 on his campaign. Burke's latest finance report was not filed by the Oct. 10 deadline; previous reports showed he had raised $150. Kinlow, who easily defeated four opponents in 1983, has collected $3,795, much of it from school administrators and teachers.

Ward 1

In Ward 1, a collection of densely populated neighborhoods in the center of the city, Wilma Harvey faces her second election in two years. Appointed to fill out the term of board member Edna Frazier-Cromwell, who had died, Harvey, 41, defeated four challengers in a special election last fall.

Now, in her first regular race, she faces Edward Beasley, a 45-year-old Howard University professor.

Board members have privately criticized Harvey, who rarely speaks at board meetings, as one of the panel's weakest members.

"I would have thought there would be a good opponent there," said union president Simons. The union endorsed Harvey.

Harvey, who is not employed outside her board position, said she is taking Beasley's challenge "very seriously." She said she didn't draw other opposition because "I did some outstanding things in my first year and the residents decided they liked me."

Harvey tells audiences about her frequent tours of ward schools and the school workshops she has sponsored on teen-age pregnancy and drug abuse.

Beasley's speeches stick to generalities. "We can choose to be good or we can choose to be great," he told one audience. "I choose to be great." Beasley talks about bringing to the board "a scenario of the black experience speaking as a black man." He proposes increasing parent and business participation in the schools.

Beasley has raised $1,475; Harvey has collected $4,748, including numerous gifts from principals and school administrators.

Ward 4

Board member Linda Cropp, who defeated a challenger by a margin of nearly 4 to 1 four years ago, again faces one opponent in Ward 4, which stretches from the city's northern tip through several Northwest and Northeast sections to Michigan Avenue and Spring Road.

Art Lloyd, a 36-year-old deputy U.S. marshal and former youth counselor and correctional officer, has been a substitute teacher in the D.C. schools. His experience working in the justice system inspired Lloyd to get involved in the schools, where, he said, "We have to get rid of peer pressure not to achieve, our youngsters can be proud to be A students."

Lloyd proposes making the school board a full-time job and requiring students to wear uniforms at the elementary level.

Cropp also has joined the call for uniforms to relieve pressure on children to wear expensive fashions. The two-term board member, who plans to run for president of the board if she is reelected, emphasizes her experience as a guidance counselor and teacher.

She gives audiences a bullish account of the school system's achievements, boasting of peaceful board meetings and improvements in student performance.

Cropp has raised $3,040 for her campaign, including numerous contributions from school administrators and teachers. Lloyd has collected $293, almost half of it in a loan to himself.

Ward 6

More than any other incumbent, Bob Boyd had reason to celebrate when the final list of candidates was announced. Boyd, a board member since 1984, faces four opponents.

"I'm not disappointed that I have four opponents, all of whom sound alike," he said.

The ward's geography has come to be the dominant issue in Ward 6 school board races. Several of Boyd's opponents stress the notion that he represents the area near Capitol Hill more aggressively than he does the eastern section, which is overwhelmingly black and low-income.

A former PTA president and early chairman of Parents United, Boyd today rejects the argument that he focuses on only some of the ward's schools, saying that he frequently visits ward schools and has lunch each month with the winner of Eastern High School's student-of-the-month competition.

Boyd, who has raised $9,823, mostly in small donations from ward residents and school administrators, also has won active support from parents of children in special education programs. A 42-year-old writer and researcher, Boyd has a reputation among other board members as one of the group's hardest workers, especially on the education of the handicapped.

One candidate from the 1983 race, Charlotte Holmes, is trying again. Holmes, a budget analyst at the Small Business Administration, won only 199 votes last time, but she has raised $1,689, most of it from herself, in another effort. Holmes tells audiences, "We should wake up and see what's going on around us. They say integration is the best thing, but look at the Capitol Hill schools. They get everything, and in Stanton Park and Anacostia, we need work."

Like Holmes, challenger Geraldine Bell criticizes Boyd for his supposed emphasis on the ward's western portion. "Our children have to cross town to Capitol Hill schools to get the best education," she said. "In Ward 6, our schools are still fraught with inequities."

Bell, 49, and a budget analyst in the city Human Services Department, is a Democratic Party activist. She missed the deadline for her latest finance report; earlier reports showed she had raised $470.

Irving Hinton, 43, is an affirmative action coordinator for a Northeast Washington community group. He has collected $1,029 in campaign funds, more than half of it from himself.

Hinton says his experience working in job training programs will help him implement a proposal to teach parents to reward children for academic success. And he wants to create after-school centers where families can go to help children with their work.

Candidate John (Peter Bug) Matthews did not respond to requests for information and has not appeared at many candidate events nor raised campaign money.

(The races in Wards 5 and 7 were profiled in The Post last week.)