A group of 18 candidates for the Howard County Board of Education includes a second-year teacher who would like to see her colleagues get more help from the central office to do their jobs well, a retired executive who wants to make golf a school sport, a not-so-long-ago graduate of Howard County schools, and omnipresent volunteers.

It is the largest field in at least two decades--and as long as anybody can remember--with candidates ranging in age from 26 to 75. Their backgrounds are varied, as are their reasons for running.

Some say the large number of candidates is evidence that residents are unhappy with the way things are working--at a time when the school system has lost its No. 1 ranking in Maryland standardized test scores, and complaints spurred the creation of two committees to assess whether Howard schools are inequitable in their services and resources.

"There's something definitely broken that people think needs to be fixed," said candidate Daniel M. Dotson.

"I think this screams volumes that change is coming," said June D. Cofield, who is among the many candidates who said the current board doesn't do enough to make members of the public feel like their input is valued.

Karen B. Campbell, a longtime board member, deflected such complaints. "This board has increased its outreach to the public more than any other board in the 20 years I've been involved and more than any other board in the state," she said.

The board's regular meetings with the PTA Council and the Citizens Advisory Committee, lunches with student leaders and "Coffee and Conversation" get-togethers with parents: "All of those are things that did not happen when I came on the board in '86," Campbell said. "There's a big hype that the board doesn't listen. The board does listen; what the board doesn't do is do everything people want us to."

The candidates are vying for two of the board's five seats, both with six-year terms. One of them is filled now by Stephen C. Bounds, who is seeking reelection. The other is being vacated by Campbell.

A March 7 primary will be held, narrowing the field to four candidates.

Three of the candidates--Glenn Amato, Arthur Neal Willoughby and Jerry D. Johnston--ran for the board in 1998. Willoughby and Amato made it to the general election and placed third and fourth, respectively.

When 16 of the candidates--two could not be reached by telephone--were asked their priorities, the most common responses, in addition to school equity and the conduct of the board, were academic achievement and intervention for struggling students, improving teacher training and salaries, refining the testing system and ending "social promotion"--passing students to the next grade even when they're not prepared academically.

Despite the long list of potential improvements, several board hopefuls pointed out that they are proud of the county's schools and would simply like the opportunity to make them even better.

Said Johnston, "I don't have an ax to grind; I think generally the schools are in pretty good shape. But I think I can help."

Here are brief sketches of the candidates:

Amato, 43, of Hanover. Two children at Elkridge Elementary, one at Howard High and one in a private school for the learning disabled. Amato, a recruiter for Ryder Systems, says his foremost concern is ending social promotion. He has a civil suit pending against the school system regarding his learning disabled son.

Marcelino Bedolla, 63, of Columbia. Three children graduated from Howard schools. A retired federal government worker who teaches science in a Baltimore high school, Bedolla says he is most concerned with equity of resources in schools.

Bounds, 44, of Woodbine. Two children at Glenwood Middle and one at Glenelg High. Bounds, a lawyer, says his priorities are improving academic achievement and implementing a long-range strategic plan for technology.

Virginia Charles, 52, of Laurel. One child at Long Reach High, where she volunteers full time. Charles, a former teacher, chairs the PTA Council committee that aims to increase parental involvement in schools and says that is her top priority.

Cofield, 42, of Columbia. One child at Owen Brown Middle, one at Jeffers Hill Elementary. Cofield, who volunteers in the schools and is the PTA Council's vice president for issues, would like communication to improve among the board, parents and staff.

Dotson, 33, of Columbia. One child at Clemens Crossing Elementary, one in private full-day kindergarten. A public policy coordinator for TASH, an association for people with disabilities, and a special education activist, Dotson said he is most concerned about school equity, budget issues and redistricting.

Don Dunn, 71, of Ellicott City. Five children; three graduated from Howard schools. Dunn, a retired executive at Staley Machinery and retired University of Baltimore professor, is best known for his advocacy of golf as a school sport but said he is running because he would like to see changes in testing and closer scrutiny of the budget.

Allen Dyer, 52, of Glenelg. One child at River Hill High, one at Mount View Middle. A computer consultant, Dyer ran an e-mail list for parents to communicate about Howard schools. He advocates changes in the way the board is elected and more disclosure, through the Internet, of school information.

Patricia S. Gordon, 75, of Ellicott City. Three grandchildren in Howard schools. Gordon moved in 1994 from New York, where she was an elementary school principal. Her priorities include teacher salaries and training, basic math and reading skills in the early grades and a cooperative program with a teaching school to design innovative learning programs.

Cheri J. Herschman, 26, of Columbia. Four-year-old twins. Herschman, a health insurance benefit analyst and part-time graduate student in policy science, graduated from Oakland Mills High. She is interested in preventing violence in schools and raising test scores.

Melody J. Higgins, 42, of Ellicott City. One child in Mayfield Woods Middle. A nurse and AIDS researcher who is active in the PTA and Citizens Advisory Committee, Higgins's priorities include middle school achievement, teacher salaries, the focus on standardized testing, inequities in schools in the northeast and board-parent relations.

Johnston, 55, of Ellicott City. Two of his eight children and two grandchildren are in Howard schools. Johnston, an accountant, gives $100 awards to teachers who "go the extra mile" for students. His interests include improving communication in the system and hiring and retaining good teachers.

Michael F. Katz, 32, of Ellicott City. Infant son. Katz, a computer systems administrator, says he is most interested in issues of growth: school crowding, aging and resource allocation.

Kristine Lockwood, 30, of Columbia. No children. Lockwood, a language-arts teacher at Glenwood Middle and former mortgage underwriter, says she is concerned with finding teachers more resources and time, intervening with students below grade level and reducing elementary class size.

Kathleen Sinkinson, 52, of Ellicott City. Two children in Dunloggin Middle. Sinkinson, who teaches high school and college math, led the Citizens Advisory Committee and serves on the Leadership Committee for School Equity. Her priorities include preparedness for the high school assessment and help for children who fall behind.

Stephen Swanhart, 39, of Mount Airy. One child in private kindergarten, one 3-year-old. Swanhart, a roofing contractor, would like a better vocational and trade program for students and better discipline.

Michele Williams, 48, of Columbia. One child at Owen Brown, one at Jeffers Hill. Williams, an insurance claims adjuster, wants to see a board that is more attentive to the public and is also interested in redistricting, teacher salaries and academic achievement.

Willoughby, 41, of Jessup. One child at Patuxent Valley Middle. Math and engineering professor at Morgan State University. In past campaigns, he pushed for innovative technology in classrooms, safer schools and tougher academic standards.

Board of Education Candidate Forums

Following are some of the forums planned for Board of Education candidates before the March 7 primary:

Tuesday: Hosted by the Howard County Education Association, 5 p.m., Burleigh Manor Middle School, 4200 Centennial Lane, Ellicott City.

Wednesday: Hosted by the Columbia Democratic Club, 8 p.m., Jeffers Hill Neighborhood Center, 6035 Tamar Dr., Columbia.

Jan. 24: Hosted by the NAACP, 7 p.m., Dora Mack Carter Christian Center, 7504 Oakland Mills Rd., Columbia.

Jan. 25: Hosted by the Ellicott City Democratic Club, 7:30 p.m., Miller Library, 9421 Frederick Rd., Ellicott City.