It has been hard to miss the School Board candidates signs at nearly every major intersection in the Gainesville District.

The roadside signs are just one indicator of the intensity in this race, in which Charles J. Colgan III is striving for reelection against two challengers, E.A. "Gail" Johnson and Donald P. Richardson.

Colgan, 25, is the youngest member of the School Board and a product of Prince William County Schools. Having grown up and attended schools in the county makes him better equipped to recognize the issues facing the district, he said.

"I've spent more time in the classrooms of the Prince William school system than both of my opponents combined," said Colgan, an asset manager for a McLean firm. "I asked the Gainesville District voters if it was important to have one young person on the School Board. Last time, they said yes."

Colgan said he gets questions often about school safety, and plans to work on a provision in which suspended students lose their drivers' licenses. He also would like to see the School Board offer matching funds to parents who raise money for new playground equipment for their schools. "That's a big issue from parents at the elementary school level," Colgan said.

Colgan has been criticized by both opponents for his quiet reserve during School Board sessions. Colgan said he was like a duck--you may not see much on top of the water, but underneath the legs are kicking.

"I'm a workhorse, not a show horse," Colgan said.

Johnson, 56, the owner of a graphics and editorial service firm, said she has built her campaign around the concerns of parents in the district. Earlier this summer, she sent a survey to parents soliciting their views and has been knocking on doors since then.

Johnson said she was urged to run by people dissatisfied with Colgan's leadership, especially regarding a middle school planned for the Catharpin Road area. The school is now expected to be built in 2002, but Johnson believes Colgan should have taken a greater leadership role.

Johnson said she plans to continue soliciting parents for their views through town meetings that she's willing to publicize by personally paying for ads in local newspapers.

"I see the School Board member as a conduit of information into the community," Johnson said.

When it comes to school safety, the School Board should be focusing on preventative efforts, Johnson said. Counselors should be available to elementary school students to spot problems before they grow too large to handle.

Johnson has two adult children who attended schools in other jurisdictions. Rather than a weakness, Johnson sees that as a strength. She has more time to devote to the job, and people would have no perception that she favored one school over another.

Favoritism "might not happen, but that perception might be there," Johnson said.

Richardson, 42, a software engineer, said he has a sure-fire way for making sure parents have a chance to express their views: go to where the parents already are.

As a volunteer coach and former Cub Scout leader, he said those are places where parents already are gathered.

"Identify the community groups that already meet and go there," Richardson said. "It's much easier to catch people after a meeting when they have the time."

Richardson said that Colgan's youth and Johnson's lack of experience as a Prince William school parent are strikes against them. He has two children in county schools. "I have an edge when it comes to direct experience in the community," Richardson said.

He said the site-based management plan in Prince William County, in which individual principals and parent advisory committees control budgets, has turned principals into landlords, not educators.

"Why are we making individual teachers buy textbooks?" Richardson said. The principal should be considered a "head teacher," as they are called in Europe, he said, in charge of guiding the development of the other teachers. He also believes smaller schools might go far in preventing school violence, because teachers and administrators would know the student body better.

Richardson said he worries that the county is going overboard in creating speciality schools, which will allow students to transfer to out-of-boundary high schools if they want enrichment in a specific subject, such as art or science.

"A good, liberal education is going to be good for everybody," Richardson said. "You have stuff for all the interest groups, what about the basic student body?"