Voters in the Coles District won't have to search very hard to find the differences between incumbent John David Allen Sr. and his opponent, Diane M. Tramel.

Allen, 55, a property portfolio manager, is a strong supporter of the speciality school program that will provide an opportunity for high school and middle school students to study certain subjects. Tramel, 48, a licensed practical nurse, has reservations about students specializing so early in their lives.

Allen believes the School Board provides many opportunities for parents to get involved in the district. Tramel says their voices aren't being heard. Tramel likes charter schools. Allen is against them.

Finally, Allen believes the School Board has done such a good job that not only should he be elected, but his colleagues should be as well. Tramel thinks it's time for a change.

"I'm not happy with the representation he's given us," Tramel said.

Tramel said the school district has gradually started holding parents at arm's length instead of listening to their ideas.

"Ten years ago, parents were welcomed into the system," she said. "Now, it's almost like 'You're the parent and we're the educators, and we know more than you do.' " Particularly galling is a School Board rule that requires those who want to speak at a meeting to sign up by noon the same day, she said.

"What if your kids comes home at 2 and you're upset about something then?" Tramel said.

Tramel sees town meetings as a way of reaching out to voters. She also says she would go to schools periodically just to chat with parents about their concerns. "We need to make the parents know we are accessible to them," Tramel said.

Tramel would also like to see the board shift away from the speciality school concept, by which students can transfer to a different high school if they're interested in pursuing a subject such as the arts, math and science, or information technology.

"I think they're trying to ask kids to specialize younger and younger and younger. That's what college is for. That's what graduate school is for," she said. However, she would like to see charter schools, saying they would foster competition in the school system.

Allen said that as he has made the rounds among voters, he has heard concerns about making sure older schools get the same state-of-the-art equipment that newer facilities have. He points to partnerships, such as the agreement between the Prince William County Sheriff's Department and the school system, as a model to help get equipment in the schools. The Sheriff's Department is donating more than 100 computers to Prince William.

He also feels confident that the school system will be able to meet the requirements laid out by the state in the Standards of Learning. "I think things are progressing very comfortably," he said. "As a team, we will address this."

School safety, a perennial topic, is an issue on which the school board has already taken a strong stand, Allen said. He said there was already a "zero tolerance" policy for guns, drugs and dangerous, disruptive behavior and that anything else runs the risk of overreaction. "You've got to balance safety with sensibility," he said.

Allen disagrees strongly with the notion that parents aren't given opportunities to get involved. "Parents are involved in the school system if they want to be," he said, listing the principal advisory committees, parent-teacher associations and Coles Coalition of Parents, a group created to advise him.

"I don't agree that we're nonresponsive. I think we are," he said.