In many ways, the race for Howard County school board is a lot like the race for the next president of the United States.
On many issues the candidates seem to agree, although their approaches differ, keeping many voters undecided.
And, for many county residents, party politics has popped up in the race a little too often.
The four candidates for county Board of Education - Stephen C. Bounds, Virginia Charles, Patricia S. Gordon and Jerry D. Johnston - debated their way past 14 other candidates in the March primary to get to this point.
Of the slew of hopefuls, the four were the least critical of the current school board and system. (Bounds is the only incumbent.)
The others were vocal proponents of change - some, of dramatic change.
So it's no surprise that the four who made it this far think alike on a number of issues, such as redistricting, crowded schools and equity.
But one thing recently has shown itself to separate them - party affiliation.
Bounds, Charles and Johnston are registered Republicans. Gordon is a Democrat.
The designations should be nonissues in this race because school board elections are nonpartisan by law. But in recent weeks, the political parties to which they belong have become an issue.
Consider: A mass e-mail was sent to potential voters Oct. 9, urging support for Gordon.
The e-mail was sent by the Howard County Young Democrats and made mention of Gordon's political affiliation as a reason why she should be elected.
"Pat Gordon really needs our help," the letter read. "She's running for school board (which is nonpartisan); however, she's the only Democrat running."
Also, a private citizen invited Johnston to her home Oct. 24 to speak about his views.
In a mass e-mail invitation to potential voters, she referred to Johnston as a "Republican candidate."
Such references by citizens aren't illegal, county elections director Robert J. Antonetti Sr. said.
As long as candidates don't mention their parties on any legal ballots or run on a partisan platform, no laws have been broken.
But it's gotten some people riled.
"It's a nonpartisan position, and it really bothers me that you have a group of people sending out letters and e-mails saying vote for this candidate because they're a Democrat or a Republican," said Wanda Hurt, a member of the state PTA. "We're not talking abortion platforms or whether you should have higher taxes. This is about education, and it is so far beyond politics. It's about people. It's about issues. It's about the children. It's not about party politics. It's not about seeing if you can get one more elected official from your party."
Gordon and Johnston have said they had nothing to do with the e-mails sent out bearing their names and affiliations.
"I'm upset that there was any inference of partisan politics," Johnston said, adding that the meeting the invitation referred to was free of any political talk.
Said Gordon: "I appreciate it that they thought of me, but I would have preferred that they didn't send that out."
And each candidate has stressed repeatedly his or her desire to sit on the board as a person, not a representative of any particular party.
But some citizens said the candidates' desires have been lost in the numerous references to political parties.
"I think it's very unfortunate," former school board member Dana Hanna said. "I think it sets a tempo for the next election. And I think it's going to denigrate our board."
Hanna said that when he ran for school board in 1988, he re-registered as an independent because he thought it was "inappropriate" to espouse the beliefs of a political party when considering the needs of children.
"I'm a very partisan person. I'll admit that up front," said Hanna, who is back to being a registered Republican.
"But I don't judge the merits of people on their political view," he said. "The issues are not typical Republican/Democrat issues. Those don't belong anywhere in the school board arena."
Bounds mentioned 1994 as the last time party politics became an issue in the county school board race.
He said a 19-year-old candidate, Jamie M. Kendrick, was burning up the campaign trail, impressing voters and seemed to be a shoo-in.
But a highly criticized "Dear Democrat" letter Kendrick wrote seeking support might have led to the young candidate's defeat, Bounds said.
"I think it's just very dangerous," he said. "Partisanship just doesn't have any place on the board. And people here really believe that."
However, some citizens believe the philosophies that go along with party belief are an essential part of a board member's decision-making abilities - especially when it comes to budget issues."Education issues such as smaller class sizes, competitive salaries to attract top teachers and effective education programs cost money," said Ronnie Koppelman, an educator and county resident who has voiced her support for Gordon.
"The philosophical belief of Republicans is the need to advocate for tax relief," she said. "The philosophical belief of Democrats is the need to strongly advocate for public financial support for education issues. Knowing which philosophy a Board of Education candidate aligns with is helpful when choosing a candidate whose function is to represent citizens in talks with the County Council and county executive."
But election director Antonetti said the references still probably aren't smart.
Opponents could use the reference as fuel for criticism, or voters of opposing parties may choose not to vote for the candidate simply because he or she isn't the "correct" party.
"It might be detrimental to that person's electability," Antonetti said.