As the March 8 primary election draws closer, the race for the two at-large seats on the Howard County School Board is taking shape with the two incumbents stressing their first-term records and the three other candidates advocating new school programs.

Common campaign themes as well as some sharp differences have emerged in interviews, speeches at a recent candidates' forum and written responses to a questionnaire from the county's PTA Council.

The incumbents, Deborah Kendig and William T. Manning, said their service on the board shows their priorities. They point to the board's work to add a program for the gifted and talented to the system, reduce class sizes and negotiate a multiyear teachers' contract that guarantees annual 8 percent pay raises.

The challengers -- George Bush II, Dana F. Hanna Sr. and Leslie P. Breden -- are pushing for new priorities in the schools.

Bush, 43, a former teacher who is retired from the Los Angeles police department, stresses his management experience, saying the school board needs a "fresh look" on education issues. "I feel I have the ability to be a good manager," he said. "The board needs members who can manage."

Meanwhile, Hanna, 34, wants the school board to concentrate more on what he calls the "at-risk" student, average pupils or underachievers who have been overlooked by programs targeted at gifted and talented pupils.

Breden, the youngest candidate at 25, wants more drug awareness programs and an intensified building program to handle school crowding in the next five years.

Manning is from Columbia, and the other candidates are from Ellicott City.

The top four vote-getters in the "Super Tuesday" primary will square off against one another in the November general election. At-large school board members serve six-year terms and receive a $6,000 annual salary.

So far, no political organization or collective bargaining group has endorsed a candidate in the primary election. The county's PTA Council has asked such groups to refrain from endorsing a candidate on the grounds that it could "compromise" the nonpartisan school board race.

Many voters got their first glimpse of the candidates last week at a forum sponsored by the Howard County Educational Support Personnel Association, a union that represents 376 secretaries, clerks, typists and aides in the public schools.

All of the candidates were present, except Breden, who had a scheduling conflict, according to personnel association copresident Sheila Rosensteel.

Breden's absence and his failure to submit a questionnaire by the PTA Council in the past few weeks had led to speculation that he might be dropping out of the contest. But Breden, a manager of a library store at the University of Maryland in College Park, said Friday that he plans to stay in the race.

At the Feb. 2 forum, Kendig, Manning, Bush and Hanna agreed on several issues, such as their support for Mount Hebron High School's tough drug policy, which prohibits students caught using or possessing drugs from participating in extracurricular activities. All four candidates also said they opposed proposals to create a statewide math-science school, to extend the school year from 183 to 240 days and to establish uniform percentage salary increases for all school employees.

However, the candidates split sharply on the issue of a nonvoting student board member, a controversial proposal that is being pushed by the student governments in the county high schools. Bush, who is not related to Vice President Bush, said a nonvoting student member fits in with his "participatory management" philosophy to encourage community involvement.

Hanna, an operations manager with a Columbia carpeting firm, said he also supports the concept because it would give students a larger voice in the school system.

But Manning, 53, a financial consultant, said he flatly opposes the idea, preferring to stick with the current system in which students from each of the county's nine high schools address the board before each meeting.

Kendig, 48, a homemaker, has been a longtime opponent of the proposal. At the forum, however, she wavered on the issue, saying she was unconvinced of the need for a student board member. The current school board has twice unanimously voted against the proposal, which also was defeated in October by the local legislative delegation.

Meager campaign coffers have kept the school board race relatively quiet, candidates say, although they expect to spend more money for election signs and mass mailings in the next few weeks.

The PTA Council plans a candidates' forum at 7:30 p.m. March 2 in the Department of Education building on Rte. 108. And the county's League of Women Voters plans to distribute a voter's guide this month that will include the school board candidates.

With five weeks left before the primary, Hanna, a political novice, said he's enjoying the campaign trail: "The deeper you peel this onion, the better it gets."