The discrepancies in funding between Prince George's County's popular magnet schools and non-specialized neighborhood schools is shaping up as the central issue in a three-way race for the District 8 Board of Education seat.

All three candidates in the race to fill the seat that is being vacated by longtime board member Angelo I. Castelli say the school board needs to drastically improve funding and educational offerings at general neighborhood schools -- a platform that reflects a growing sentiment in the county that the magnets have flourished at the expense of other schools by hoarding the best resources and teachers.

James "Mike" Davis, Anthony R. Dean and Frederick C. Hutchinson, the three candidates in the district that stretches between Fort Washington and Oxon Hill in the southern region of the county, are less closely aligned in identifying funding sources to bolster programs at the neighborhood schools. Davis and Hutchinson said that only as a last resort would they support Superintendent John A. Murphy's campaign to launch a referendum drive aimed at repealing or amending TRIM, an amendment to the county charter that put a limit on property taxes and, as a result, limited county spending.

Murphy, who maintains that all schools can rise to the level of the specialized magnets only with a huge boost in funding, has been publicly encouraging parents and privately soliciting business leaders to put pressure on the county to lift the restrictive tax initiative adopted in 1978. In pushing for the referendum, Murphy has noted that the school system will have a hard time maintaining programs at the magnets, let alone improving the quality of neighborhood schools, without a significant funding increase because of a projected enrollment surge.

Davis, 51, a program analyst for the federal procurement data center and former president of the County Council of PTAs, said the school board should trim the more than $1 million spent annually in legal fees to maintain the court-ordered desegregation plan and instead use the money to bolster programs at neighborhood schools.

"All that money we are spending in legal fees could be used to replicate magnet . . . programs in the comprehensive {neighborhood} schools," Davis said. "With the current state of the economy I don't know that we can expect an increase in school funding from the state or county. I think what we can do is reshuffle resources."

Davis, a product of the Prince George's school system, has had three children graduate from the county schools.

Dean, 39, a partner in the real estate consulting firm of Dean, Daley and Associates, said Prince George's can solve its fiscal woes by seeking more money from the state and by scaling back the system's extensive busing program and transfer the money saved into educational programs.

Dean, an occasional substitute teacher in Prince George's, said the school system also needs to reduce student-teacher ratios throughout the system, not just in specialized schools, and should strengthen its foreign language requirements.

Dean, who was born in Baltimore and grew up there, has a 7-year-old daughter who attends St. Ignatius Catholic School in Fort Washington. A seven-year resident of Prince George's, Dean said he enrolled his daughter in private school because he was unable to secure a spot in a magnet program.

"We have tried various times to get our daughter into a magnet," Dean said. "We have stood in those long lines overnight. That is why I am running for the school board. If we couldn't get in {a magnet}, that means there are other people out there who are also feeling shortchanged because they could not get in."

Hutchinson, 36, a state tax policy specialist for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in the District, said the state and county should consider enacting impact fees for developers in the county to help bolster the school budget.

A lifelong Prince George's resident with one daughter enrolled in public school, Hutchinson said he also would push for the creation of a multicultural curriculum and programs to help students develop critical thinking skills. "Multicultural education is important because it can change the environment in the school building," Hutchinson said. "The curriculum must be shaped to reflect the cultural diversity not only in terms of having different ethnic groups in textbooks but also in encouraging students to explore the various perspectives of the white, African American, Asian American and other communities."

Davis and Dean, who also favor the implementation of a multicultural curriculum, said they would encourage school officials to seek federal and state grants to create curriculums that better represent the experience and culture of minorities and women.