It’s a Raleigh tradition: Every two years, candidates for the Wake County Board of Education debut their campaigns at a Saturday morning forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women, and–this year–the Wake Education Partnership.

And every two years it’s a godsend for those of us–which is most of us–who think it’s important who’s elected to the school board but know next to nothing about who’s running except what’s on their resumes.

There’s more campaigning to come between now and Oct. 11–election day–but as the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and the forum’s always good for some firsts. As it was last Saturday:

District 1 (Eastern Wake County): An open seat. Lori Millberg was the very picture of a school board member–positive, well-spoken, and with a long history of PTA and school task force leadership in support of her three kids–without sounding all self-important about it. It helped that the scattershot questioning skipped her on all the tough ones (intelligent design, for example). But neither Bill Simmons nor Tillie Turlington, her two opponents, showed up, nor did either of them answer the LWV’s very simple survey asking for their “relevant experience” and “major priorities.” That’s a real bad beginning.

District 2 (Garner, Fuquay-Varina): Another open seat. Candidates were asked about “intelligent design.” Horace Tart, a builder with two kids in Christian schools and two in public ones, said teach it–it’s a Christian idea, and we’re a Christian country, he said. Wanda Weeks Denning, a PTA leader long since, said don’t. Debra McHenry, who works for the state Department of Public Instruction, ducked. Points for Denning, but McHenry was better on the issue of the scandal in the school transportation department. Call it a draw–unless you like intelligent design.

District 7 (Northwest Wake): Patti Head, the current board chair, didn’t show (she did turn in the survey, though). Ditto Mike Gould, a state probation officer. Paul Kretzschmar was there and proved himself a crusty critic of school busing and a vocational education devotee. Not surprising, since he was a voc-ed teacher and administrator in the Miami-Dade County school system for 30 years. He also advocated increasing class sizes to as many as 40, but with a teacher and a teacher’s assistant in every class. The shortage of teachers will require it, he argued. In this conservative district, he’d be the really conservative pick, apparently.

District 9 (Cary): Bill Fletcher, the incumbent, is running again. He ran for state superintendent of public instruction last year, and the drawn-out process of his defeat (which, if you need to know more, is discussed in “Remember Bush v. Gore?” meant he didn’t file for this seat until two other strong candidates had jumped in. Fletcher we know–Republican, strong advocate of the school system, but anti-sex education and a GLBT-intolerant one at that. Eleanor Goettee is the Democrat. She’s executive director of the N.C. Professional Teaching Standards Commission and runs a public-speaking company, too–which shows, by the way. Good speaker, emphasis on retaining good teachers and putting kids first, deftly avoided all the big political issues (busing, reassignments) that get in the way. Curt Stangler, a retired corporate executive who’s taken to going to all the school board meetings, thinks school assignments should be plotted out three years in advance, so parents aren’t surprised. He was impressive, too. Tough choice, Cary.