Most of the 350 seats in Takoma Elementary's auditorium were empty, but in one sat Dellie Reed, a young mother taking her first look at D.C. school board candidates. She wasn't impressed.
"I don't think any of them is giving us enough specifics," Reed said as her 4-year-old daughter, Adele, squirmed in her seat Tuesday night. "The schools need more help. Parents have to say something over and over again to get anything done."
The final days before Tuesday's general election are upon candidates in five board races, but it seems few campaigns are attracting overwhelming voter support.
At some forums, candidates have nearly outnumbered parents. And among those who attend, there are doubts that many of the 32 candidates, bidding for half the seats on the school board, can improve the city's ailing schools.
"We don't have people looking after children in this city the way they should," said Loretta Haines, a parent at the Takoma forum.
Similar issues dominate each race. Candidates are debating the school board's battles with Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins, proposing ways to revamp the curriculum, improve math and science classes, and have teachers play a larger role in shaping student values.
There is a clear sense among those running, and among parents, that the city's 175 schools are at a crossroads, with the board's actions in the next year either leading to great change, or still more trouble.
The board is set to search for a successor to Jenkins, whose contract expires in June. And a civic group, the Committee on Public Education, has given it a much-praised agenda for change. Yet there are questions about whether the board will have the will or the cash to enact it.
Several of the races have been intensely competitive. In Ward 8, board member R. Calvin Lockridge is facing a serious challenge from parent activist Linda Moody.
Lockridge, the board's most combative and unpredictable member, is seeking a fourth term, but this is the first time he has only one opponent. And Moody, a former PTA president at Ballou High School, has gained significant support.
She has been endorsed by the Washington Teachers Union, the principals' union, The Washington Post and by the Concerned Citizens for a Better School Board, which includes former D.C. school superintendents Benjamin Henley and Vincent Reed.
Moody also has raised about $8,000 -- 10 times as much as Lockridge -- and it's coming from around the city. One of her most prominent donors is Terence C. Golden, the chief financial officer for the Oliver Carr Co. and the former leader of the Committee on Public Education.
But Lockridge, who is touting a $1 million grant the school system just won from Congress for Ward 8 students, said he is confident of victory. "I intend to win with at least 60 percent of the vote," he said. "Some people have problems with my style, but Linda Moody hasn't accomplished anything."
In the race for an at-large board seat, 11 candidates are battling to replace retiring member Eugene Kinlow. A few of them appear to be at the head of the pack. Jay Silberman, a leader of the schools advocacy group Parents United, has raised $14,000 -- far more than any rival.
Silberman has the support of council member William Lightfoot (I-At Large), the principals union, The Washington Post and the group led by Henley and Reed.
He is dueling parent activist Valencia Mohammed, who has six children in D.C. schools. Mohammed's primary campaign theme is to have the curriculum stress African history and achievement. She has been a consultant to Jenkins on that topic and is a chief supporter of his.
Ed Sargent, an official in the mayor's drug policy office, and Shawn X Brakeen, a D.C. teacher, also have waged formidable campaigns. Former board member Bettie Benjamin is running hard, but she has not filed reports with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance -- a violation officials there are investigating.
In Ward 4, 12 candidates are running for the seat Linda W. Cropp is leaving. Parent activist Priscilla Gay has the endorsement of The Post, the principals union and the former superintendents, but the teachers union is supporting Lee Manor and Ward 4 council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D) has troops helping candidates Nate Sims and C.B. Griffin.
In the two other races, incumbents R. David Hall (Ward 2) and Nate Bush (Ward 7) retain strong support, and are not facing well-financed or well-known opposition.