I felt a little rusty attending last night’s Candidate Forum for the RISD School Board. There’ve been few contested races lately, so I had to re-learn how to listen with a discerning ear to candidates answering tough questions.

Everyone on the panel was bright and earnest, and each described their years volunteering in the district and parenting successful RISD students. All applauded the fine job the RISD is currently doing, and all – including the incumbents – stressed plenty of things the district could and should be doing better.

Frankly, the attendance wasn’t very good. If you weren’t able to attend, you can read my impressions here. My opinions are my own.

Vying for the Place 3 seat vacated by retiring David Tyson were schoolteacher Darryl Smyers, businessman Kris Oliver and write-in candidate Elaine Johnson, a systems analyst for an IT company.

Smyers was strongest when discussing the classroom, expressing his frustration at the over-teaching to TAKS tests and the touting the benefits of athletics and other extra-curriculars in keeping kids interested. Smyers has recruited, hired and fired teachers, and he said he feels that his career in education makes him uniquely qualified to serve. “A good teacher makes all his students feel like they are gifted and talented,” he said.

Oliver’s appeal was evident when he discussed the skills students must acquire to succeed in the work-world when their education is finished. Critical thinking and creativity will be stronger, he said, if we shift our focus from baseline TAKS testing to Advanced Placement preparation and project-based learning. Extracurricular activities have important life lessons, he added, teaching flexibility and teamwork. “It’s important to feel a part of something larger than yourself.” He also touted his experience as a CPA and corporate CEO as preparation for managing the district’s $250 million budget.

Johnson, a late-comer to the race, said the growth & development of teachers and students alike must be measureable, and she stressed the value of the diversity she brings to the board as an African American. “I believe in the public school system,” she said, and diversity “will make it even more effective.”

Twelve year veteran of the board, Lanet Greenhaw, was poised and confident when answering voter-submitted questions and able to relax a bit since her Place 4 opponent recently dropped out of the race. Greenhaw highlighted the need to hire the best teachers available and present a “challenging, rigorous and relevant” curriculum plan for students with a variety of capabilities. She said her experience, along with an “amazing” RISD financial staff, helps in handling the “constant battle” of managing district finances.

When Carol Kent was elected to the Texas legislature, Karen Holburn filled her unexpired term on the school board and is running for re-election in Place 5. Raj Chari is the challenger seeking to bring “newer ideas to the board.”

As a current board member and past president of the RISD Council of PTAs, Holburn was strongest when stressing the strengths and successes of the district. “All of our schools are rated Exemplary or Recognized,” she said adding, “One of the things that make RISD strong is parental involvement.” She also had praise for RISD financial guru Tony Harkleroad. “It’s important to make sure your money is going where your priorities are,” she said.

Chari decided to run for the school board after “being asked by teachers and other parents how I was getting such great results with my own children.” He added, “We are lacking in advanced academics for high achievers.” Chari graduated from Nagpur University in India. In his bio, he wrote “I bring a diversity of experience, culture and educational values to the board, which is lacking at this time and is much over-due.”

There were no fireworks – not even a spirited debate – from this group that tended to agree than they disagreed. I encourage you ponder the qualities you think most important in a school board member and exercise your right to vote on May 8.