The tone has changed in the St. Mary's Board of Education election since the primary, when several candidates angry about the status quo were defeated.

The talk now is of challenges ahead, not of breakdowns in the schools.

The election Tuesday is an important one because the selection of a new superintendent will be made by the next board. But the four candidates for the board's two open seats agree on so many issues that many voters probably will base their decision more on personal factors than political ones.

Clare Whitbeck, a retiree best known in the county for questioning the status quo, is challenging Cathy Allen, who, as the board's chairman, sets the tone in meetings.

Gary Kessler, who works at Patuxent River Naval Air Station and has volunteered in school activities, is running against Pat Woodburn, a real estate agency employee with a long history of involvement in St. Mary's County public affairs.

They all point to these issues: hiring a superintendent after Patricia M. Richardson retires at the end of the year, finding land for new schools, making sure schools are safe, improving communication with the public and ensuring that state-required tests do not become the only means of evaluating students.

"I really do think we're at a crossroads in the county," Kessler said.

Board member Mary Washington is running for reelection unopposed.

Allen, a former critical-care nurse who lives in Hollywood, has served on the school board since 2000.

Her priorities: "First and foremost finding a strong leader who can take our school system to the next level, ensuring that our students achieve . . . and dealing with the capacity issues we have, and the number of new schools we need to construct."

She said she will make sure "stakeholders" share their ideas about a new superintendent before school board members reach a decision.

She said the board needs to ensure that students can compete with those in other states but also recognize that children learn in different ways. She is particularly concerned about the high school assessment tests that are to be phased in as requirements for graduation.

"The idea that we would take a single test or a series of tests to say you get your diploma -- I think that ignores the differences in students and the fact that we have other measures of accountability. . . . I just worry that for students who are not good test-takers this is going to be an insurmountable challenge," she said.

She said voters have been impressed with her open mind and her ability to work collaboratively with the county commissioners, the school board and the school system.

Some voters also remember when Washington called the sheriff's office after a board meeting this year and accused Allen of assault. The two soon exchanged apologies and promised to work more closely together.

"I'm waiting and hoping we get that improvement," Whitbeck said. As for her ability to get along with people, she said: "I'm not going to pick a fight with anyone on the board. You might see me and Pat Woodburn exchange some pretty harsh words, then get to giggling and go out to lunch together."

Whitbeck, who for several years was a speech teacher in the District, also worked as an office manager. She lives in Leonardtown, where she keeps a close watch on the county government and public schools.

She is worried about children who are promoted despite reading difficulties and believes there should be more programs for gifted students.

"Conditioning a child's graduation on the ability to pass a test seems to me not good for the kids," she said. She wants to improve the board's communication with the public, starting by getting answers to parents' questions.

She hopes the board can find a superintendent with "people skills," like those of Richardson. And with a doctorate. "I recognize that PhD has often been described as 'piled higher and deeper,' " she said. But in education "you need to have the credentials to be credible."

Kessler, principal deputy program manager for conventional strike weapons with Naval Air Systems Command, has served as an elementary school PTA president and as a member of the county schools budget advisory committee. "One of the key jobs of the school board will be selecting the superintendent," he said. "That will be the focus of that new board."

He would like community forums similar to those the county commissioners host once a month and a more open format at school board meetings so people can ask questions.

"A lot of folks are concerned about the growth in the community," he said. "Some of our schools are starting to see some overcrowded conditions." There's "a lot of concern about getting going on building new schools so class sizes don't grow too large."

He said the board may need to look at the order in which new schools are built. "We'll see issues at middle and high schools sooner than the elementary schools."

He has also heard from voters worried about whether the schools are safe. He, like the other candidates, agreed with most of the recommendations of a security task force this year. "Now, to me, its follow-through is going to be key," he said.

The existing policies are good ones, Kessler said, but the board needs to make sure they are administered consistently. He would like more cameras on buses, an expansion of the alternative learning center and maintaining officers patrolling the high schools.

Woodburn is a self-described "senior citizen with old-time values" from St. Clement Shores who had seven children go through St. Mary's County schools. She said she does not expect to have any problems communicating with the public if elected. "I've been here for years, and I know most of the people, and I can relate to them. It's much easier for me to relate to them because I know them."

She hopes the school system finds a superintendent who loves children, has good social skills, knows teaching and the curriculum, possesses good judgment and can lead.

"I don't think graduation should depend on the exit exams," she said. "I really feel the teacher relates better to her class and would know what exams to make up for them. You have children with [attention difficulties] and from low-income families that have to be brought up to the other levels."

She said finding land for schools should be a priority because the schools are overcrowded. "We know we need new schools. It's very hard. One piece of property was stopped because of a certain toad that lived on that property. He has a right to be there. But it's very difficult."

She said she has enjoyed meeting people in the schools during her campaign. "I think they've been doing a fantastic job."

St. Mary's school board Chairman Cathy Allen, right, with opponent Clare Whitbeck at a candidate forum last week at Lexington Park library.