Challengers in the Montgomery County school board races predicted the Nov. 5 election would be a referendum on the effectiveness of current members. If so, the message was mixed.

Board Vice President Patricia O'Neill trounced newcomer Kevin Schuyler with a whopping 74 percent of the vote. But board President Reginald Felton, a board fixture since 1994, barely squeaked by special education advocate and virtual unknown Robyn Anne Traywick, winning 52 percent of the vote to her 47 percent. Traywick did not concede the election until all the absentee ballots were counted.

In another close race, Charles Haughey, a longtime education researcher and consultant, bested Olney dentist and parent activist Henry Lee 52 percent to 47 percent for the open at-large seat. In District 1, the seat being vacated by Nancy King after eight years, went to Gabe Romero, an architect and PTA advocate, who won handily with 71 percent of the vote over Joseph Sladki.

To observers, O'Neill's resounding victory was a result of a few key factors: her name recognition; her dogged appearances at parades, coffees and campaign events; and the fact that Schuyler, who has lived in Montgomery County for two years, made promises that even voters knew he couldn't keep, including new elementary schools, changed boundaries and later school start times.

"I think the vote verified and validated the work I've been doing for four years for the children of the county," O'Neill said. "I've tried to be a responsive school board member and I have deep roots in the county through PTA and family connections. And it validates the work we're doing as a school system, that we're going in the right direction, making changes. We're not perfect, but we're trying."

Felton, who had considered a run for County Council before deciding to run for reelection, was shocked as returns came in on election night. He had everything going for him, including name recognition and a long list of board accomplishments. Four years ago, he won easily with no opposition. And he was one of four candidates, along with incumbent O'Neill and newcomers Haughey and Romero, who were endorsed by the teachers union, the Montgomery County Education Association.

Their potent "apple ballot" was handed out by union workers at hundreds of polls on Election Day.

"I was surprised that it was that close, but certainly [Traywick] had a strong organization and she dealt with some issues that, obviously, in the minds of many people are not being effectively addressed," Felton said. "She was a strong candidate, and that's democracy."

Felton said he did not plan on making changes as a result of the close vote.

"It had not been our experience as a school district to be viewed as not supporting special ed programs, because historically and now we're viewed as one of the best in the nation," he said. "So either we're not informing our public, or we do need to re-address some of these issues."

Still, Traywick came within striking distance.

"It was almost really sweet," she said. "Reggie thought he had a walk. I think the election was a major wake-up call. I don't think anyone in the schools or county expected that."

What Traywick had on her side was people power, with 133 friends and supporters covering more than 100 polling places handed out literature and encouraged people to vote for her on Election Day. And in the last weeks, they went door to door to about 60,000 houses.

What really hurt her grass-roots campaign, Traywick said, was the sniper crisis. "I was really depending on those neighborhood walks," she said. "But I wasn't going to ask people to do that" with a sniper on the loose.

Traywick spent much of her campaign attacking Felton for missing meetings and asking few questions. That approach, she concedes, may have backfired. Some voters said she came across as angry.

Nevertheless, she said her message of increased parent involvement struck a chord. She proposed holding board meetings at various locations throughout the county so more parents could attend and more actively including parents in crafting policy and making decisions.

Both Traywick and Schuyler were backed by a nascent coalition of odd bedfellows: the parents of gifted children, special education advocates and those pushing for a more rigorous curriculum, the Alliance for a Better Curriculum.

If nothing else, Traywick said, her campaign provided a catalyst for groups with very different agendas to at least try to work together. Their first organizational meeting was held earlier this week.

Traywick, a nurse who is applying to law school, said she doesn't know if she'll run again. But she vowed to continue to push for more parental involvement and for the issues of the newly forming coalition for quality education for all children, whatever their needs.

Said Traywick: "I'm not going away."