Four Seattle School Board hopefuls drew sharp contrasts between themselves and their incumbent opponents at a candidates debate Wednesday night.

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The format of the discussion was unconventional, but its take-away was clear — the four activist challengers for the Seattle School Board disagree with the current board and administration on almost every aspect of district policy.

In the most high-profile faceoff so far in the campaign, the challengers and incumbents sparred over how to address a large achievement gap, low student performance, deep budget cuts and fallout from a financial mismanagement scandal that resulted in the firing of former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson.

The election is widely seen as a referendum on the board’s handling of that scandal and issues of education reform. The incumbents, who swept into office four years ago with the backing of the business community, have a funding advantage but did not have particularly strong showings in the Aug. 16 primary — only District 1 incumbent Peter Maier received a majority of votes.

The general election is set for Nov. 8.

The incumbents maintain they led the district through difficult times. But the challengers argue the board doesn’t represent the people.

Or, as District 6 challenger Marty McLaren said at the debate, “Our current board was funded by wealthy donors from out of the city with an agenda that has nothing to do with the students of Seattle.”

The Wednesday night forum, sponsored by The Stranger and attended by about 250, featured one-on-one debates, “lightning rounds” in which all candidates answered questions by moving to parts of the stage marked “yes,” “no” or “dunno” and a pop quiz that asked factual questions about the district.

The lightning rounds may have best revealed the differences between the candidates.

Asked if individual schools should be allowed to choose their own curriculum, all the incumbents said no, while the challengers all said yes. Similarly, the incumbents said Teach for America recruits should be able to teach in Seattle while the challengers disagreed.

And asked about the district’s new neighborhood-based assignment and transportation plans, the incumbents said they supported them while the challengers said they opposed them, or didn’t know.

If the lightning rounds showed policy differences, the one-on-ones highlighted differences in tone.

District 1: Maier (incumbent) vs. Sharon Peaslee

Prompted by a question about the school district’s handling of a small-business contracting program that auditors found had doled out $1.8 million in questionable contracts, Peaslee attacked the board for not being vigilant in oversight.

Maier said it was Goodloe-Johnson’s duty to oversee the administration, and the board held her accountable for the scandal. The only board member who acknowledged seeing a report suggesting potential problems with the program, Maier admitted he had been too trustful of others and had learned his lesson.

Peaslee also went on the offensive over the school district’s enrollment numbers, which are now rising after years of decline.

“It is really unfortunate that we closed all those schools,” said Peaslee, alluding to a contentious 2009 process in which the board voted to close five schools.

Maier said the board couldn’t have foreseen that enrollment trends would reverse.

District 2: Sherry Carr (incumbent) vs. Kate Martin

The scandal again took center stage in the second debate.

While Carr repeated Maier’s view that oversight was the superintendent’s responsibility, Martin said Goodloe-Johnson “should have been let go long before whole thing happened.”

And when Carr touted new internal auditing measures put in place since the scandal, Martin responded, “We don’t need an auditor to tell us that the job of a superintendent is to oversee, not overlook, what’s going on in our schools.”

Pointing to the new school assignment plan and a new teacher contract that makes student test scores a factor in teacher evaluations, Carr said, “We have made steady and substantial progress.” But Martin emphasized that change is needed because, “The kids are not all right.”

District 3: Harium Martin-Morris (incumbent) vs. Michelle Buetow

Moderators put Martin-Morris on the defensive immediately, asking about his vote to allow students to graduate with a D average.

The incumbent said students should be able to graduate if they achieve a passing grade. “It’s not a matter of setting standards too low, it’s a matter of providing opportunities to kids who wouldn’t otherwise have them.”

“No,” Buetow shot back. “It’s a matter of setting standards too low.”

Martin-Morris, meanwhile, grew most passionate when talking about budget cuts. He argued the state has failed in its constitutional duty to provide funding for basic education.

District 6: McLaren

(incumbent board president Steve Sundquist could not attend due to a family emergency)

McLaren, a 67-year-old retired Seattle teacher who sued the district over its math curriculum, criticized the district more sharply than the others.

She struck a chord with the activist-supporting crowd while discussing the board’s decision to accept Teach For America — an organization that puts high-performing recent college graduates into classrooms after five weeks of training and ongoing mentorship.

“There is no reason whatsoever to have Teach for America recruits in Seattle schools,” she said.

For more coverage of Seattle Public Schools, follow Brian M. Rosenthal on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeaTimesK12.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com