Without one candidate who dropped out and another who didn't show up, four Madison school board candidates held a forum Thursday on Madison's north side.
Retired Madison police lieutenant Wayne Strong faces low-income housing provider Dean Loumos in District 3. The winner of the April 2 election will replace retiring board member Beth Moss.
Current board president James Howard is running for re-election in District 4 against legislative aide Greg Packnett, who didn't come to the forum.
And T.J. Mertz is running unopposed in District 5 after Sarah Manski, February's primary winner, dropped out. Mertz will replace Maya Cole, who's retiring.
Loumos and Strong both named the achievement gap as the district's biggest challenge.
Loumos said administrators needed to be more flexible, and ask outside entities like Dane County for resources.
"If they reallocate resources sometimes within their own schools, that would allow creative teachers to respond to what they're seeing within their own classroom," Loumos said.
Strong said the district needs to engage poor students, and figure out why black students have higher suspension and expulsion rates.
"(Suspension) leads to increased absenteeism, it leads to increased truancy, it leads to a direct school to prison pipeline," he said. "For the past 24 years as a criminal justice practitioner, what I've seen is the kids not succeeding in the schools are ending up in juvenile and ultimately our criminal justice system."
Howard said he would continue to work for students at all achievement levels, and said his time on the board has taught him to be selective in approving programs to implement.
"We have to figure out a way to raise all (test) scores up, and we're doing that by implementing a brand new literacy program in all our schools," he said.
Howard, answering a question from Mertz, said he was concerned that raising property taxes by the maximum amount allowed puts too much of a burden on taxpayers.
Mertz disagreed, saying schools need all the money they can get.
He cited trust as the district's biggest obstacle.
"As a community, trust has been broken," he said. "We can't get at the achievement gap unless the parents trust the teachers, the teachers trust the administration, and the board trusts the administration."