The campaigns in two Montgomery County school board district races in which incumbents are facing challengers are as marked by their sharpness of tone as the two races for open seats are by their collegiality.

Kevin W. Schuyler, in taking on board Vice President Patricia O'Neill in District 3, and Robyn Anne Traywick, in her campaign against board President Reginald M. Felton in District 5, paint the incumbents as sewn up in the pocket of Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

O'Neill and Felton have dismissed the charges, insisting that the board is finally on the right track, working on reforms to narrow a persistent achievement gap between rich and poor students and analyzing new programs to see whether they really work.

Meanwhile, in the at-large race, Henry Lee, a dentist and PTA activist, and opponent Charles Haughey, an education consultant, have only the highest praise for each other. They agree on many issues. Where they differ, both say, is in their backgrounds and experience.

"I started in Montgomery County schools with no English background at all. I was an ESOL student, and I know the value of mentorships of teachers, principals and counselors," said Lee, who has spent time shadowing principals on the job.

Haughey, a former official at the U.S. Department of Education, said: "The big difference, I would argue is, I'm more ready for the job."

In District 1, Gabe Romero, a longtime PTA activist and architect, does not consider that he is running against Joseph Sladki, a self-employed technology consultant bent on boosting test scores. Instead, Romero is focusing on letting voters know what his priorities are: school construction and crowding and the achievement gap.

But the tone is often harsh and accusatory in the race against the incumbents.

"We need independent board members," said Schuyler, a business manager with the Nature Conservancy. "And the campaign has broken into two camps: those that think the system is in great shape, and those who see where we can do better."

Traywick, a nurse, said: "I think we need to set our expectations high for school board members because I've been on the other side. I needed help and called elected officials over and over and over again and never got a call back."

O'Neill, who has questioned Schuyler's sincerity -- he circulated his name in Democratic circles for other political positions -- calls him a "Johnny-come-lately." In the three-way primary, O'Neill, long a PTA activist, trounced Schuyler and another opponent and came away with 68 percent of the vote.

"The primary wasn't a referendum on the school system or the school board," she said. "I believe it was about voting for the most qualified candidate to serve on the board."

Felton said: "What's resonating with voters is that they believe our school system is on the right course in dealing with the academic challenges facing our community."

Traywick and Schuyler both have the support of groups that have long considered themselves outsiders to the school system: gifted parents, special education voters and a group of parents who fear the county is dumbing down the curriculum.

Mark Simon, head of the local teachers union, said the anti-incumbent themes are not gaining much traction with many voters.

"Two years ago, the Board of Education was in constant conflict with each other, with teachers and other employees, and the public got sick and tired of it," he said. "Now, there's tremendous collaboration. The issues and challenges are hard, and we're stepping up to the plate and doing hard things well. The naysaying rings hollow."

The union, which hands out an apple ballot of endorsements and provides poll workers every election, has endorsed O'Neill, Felton, Haughey and Romero.

Schuyler is touting a "Smart Montgomery" plan and wants to explore issuing additional bonds and taking on more long-term debt to pay for school construction. Traywick wants to move the biweekly Board of Education meeting around the county to reach out to more parents. O'Neill and Felton want to continue efforts to lower class sizes and expand all-day kindergarten. Lee said no reforms will work without strong principals and teachers.