Twenty people have filed to run for the school boards in the three Southern Maryland counties, and many of them are already talking about tackling the two issues that have kept current board members busy--how to handle growth and how to improve standardized test scores.

The winners who survive the March 7 primary and Nov. 7 general election will join school boards that have the often arduous and contentious task of fighting for funds to renovate and expand old schools and build new ones, while trying to address the growing pains of rapidly expanding enrollments.

The school systems also are trying to boost scores on standardized tests that measure student achievement. The most recent results from the controversial but weighty Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, a battery of tests given each year to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders, showed that Charles County students improved enough to raise the county's ranking from 19th last year to 17th this year among the state's 24 public school systems. Scores declined in St. Mary's County, dropping the county's ranking from 10th last year to 13th this year. Calvert County scores were off, but not enough to change the county's No. 6 ranking in the state.

Charles County

In Charles County, voters will fill three seats on the seven-member board, which sets policy for a 22,000-student school system.

Eight people, including three incumbents, signed up for the campaign by Monday's filing deadline.

"I think that test scores, both Maryland state and SAT scores, need to be improved, and we need to have a change in leadership" to do that, said Michael Lukas, 37, a Defense Department employee and first-time candidate. "We need to have a concentration on teaching fundamentals and not striving to be average, but striving to be excellent."

The three incumbents seeking reelection said they do not want to give up their seats in the middle of implementing some initiatives that were put into place under their leadership, such as the middle school reading program started this year.

Incumbent Kathy Levanduski, the board's vice chairwoman, said the board must continue to maintain a close working relationship with the county commissioners to procure funding for the school system's needs. Levanduski, 35, of Waldorf, was first elected in 1996.

Some candidates are focusing on other issues that often get overshadowed by the growth problem. Al Smith, 55, a Waldorf business owner who ran for the Board of County Commissioners last year, said he thought the minimum grade-point average for athletes should be raised from the current 1.75 to at least 2.0. "Kids that participate in athletics shouldn't be given a break in school, because they don't get a break in the real world," he said.

The other incumbents on the ballot are School Board Chairman Wayne Cooper, 52, a White Plains businessman; and Mary L. Haff, 58, a former teacher from Newburg who is seeking her fourth term.

Other candidates include Deran Eaton, 31, an engineer; Howard Haft, 50, an internal medicine and emergency medicine practitioner; and Edward P. Holland, 33, a federal criminal investigator.

The March primary will leave six candidates on the ballot for the November general election.

Calvert County

In Calvert County, finding money to build schools that officials say will be needed to accommodate swelling enrollments has created a rift between school board members and the county commissioners. It's a problem likely to confront the three school board members elected next year.

"The biggest issue that is facing the current board and I think will continue is the issue of funding for the schools," said Gail M. Hoerauf-Bennett, of Lusby, who was a member of the school board from 1992 to 1996 when it was an appointed board. "Calvert County has been experiencing a lot of growth and now has a poor student-teacher ratio. We have to work to improve that student-teacher ratio, and that takes funding."

Of the six people vying for the three seats, two are incumbents--Robert L. Gray, 47, a lawyer from Huntingtown; and Mary G. Billings, of Owings. Ruth T. Keimig declared recently that she would not seek another term.

The candidates run from election districts but are voted on at large. The District 1 representative's seat will go to a new face, but not necessarily an unknown one. The three candidates who filed are Hoerauf-Bennett; Robert Church, 35, a lawyer who lives in Lusby; and Eugene M. Karol, of St. Leonard, a former Calvert schools superintendent.

Peter Cucinotta Jr., 43, of Prince Frederick, an employee of the Prince George's County Department of Corrections, and Gray are competing for the District 2 seat. It's a familiar match-up; the two faced off against each other in 1996.

Billings is the sole candidate for the District 3 seat.

St. Mary's County

In St. Mary's County, three of the five seats are up for grabs.

Incumbent Mary M. Washington, of Lexington Park, will try to hold on to her District 4 seat. Vice Chairman Stephen Kracinovich, of Leonardtown, will compete for the District 2 seat with Dennis Jack Hubscher, 56, a retired civil servant from Hollywood.

Former chairman Michael L. Hewitt announced last week that he would not seek reelection once he completes his first and only term.

Three newcomers will vie for the at-large seat. They are Todd B. Morgan, a Leonardtown resident; Cathy Allen, 43, a former registered nurse; and Elizabeth Reeves, 47, a former lobbyist and defense industry worker.

A top concern of the candidates is procuring funds to cover the costs of a booming student population.

"I think that the board is walking a fine line as they work on their budget," said Allen, also a member of the school board's growth management advisory committee. "I think they face many challenges and have many needs, and the pot of money has to be spread thin."