Candidates running for five Board of Education seats in the Nov. 8 municipal election took the stage at Fairfield Warde High School's auditorium Thursday night for a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Fairfield.

The contenders included current school members Stacey Zahn and lawyer Paul Fattibene, as well as Jennifer Maxon Kennelly, an English teacher in Greenwich; mother of two Jessica Gerber; entrepreneur Neil Fink, Philip Dwyer, an executive with the region's YMCA, and lawyer John Convertito, who organized an unsuccessful referendum last spring to restore funds to the education budget. Absent from the proceedings were Republican Amanda Parks and Independent Hugh Donnelly.

Candidates were asked to name the biggest issue now facing the Board of Education and the next one they expect the panel to confront.

Most cited space issues in the school buildings and the annual budget.

"These issues have allowed us to lose focus on the core vision of academic excellence in our town," said Democrat Fink.

They were also asked how success can be measured beyond standardized testing.

Republican Convertito said one could look at the colleges local students plan to attend, the school district's graduation rate or the longevity of staff. Fattibene, also a Republican, said success can also be judged by the number of students taking AP courses.

The candidates were next asked what role the school board members should play in contract negotiations. Now, a subcommittee of the board reviews labor negotiations that are handled primarily by staff, and Fattibene said Thursday the role of the board should be expanded. Democrat Maxon Kennelly agreed, saying it might "bring about innovative changes."

However, Democrat Zahn disagreed with expanding the board's role in negotiating contracts. Though there is only one school board representative at the negotiating table, she noted all board members already can learn about contracts earlier in the process.

Candidates were largely in agreement when responding to moderator Kiki Karpen's question to name the Fairfield school system's greatest asset and liability.

Most said the students and personnel are the greatest asset, as well as the townspeople who support the schools. However, Democrat Dwyer took a different view. He said the town's greatest liability is the fact it hasn't made an effective case to other town bodies of the need for its projects and funding.

"When asked tough questions, we have a responsibility to give clear answers. We have to be prepared to give detailed answers," Dwyer said.

Democrat Gerber said one school district liability is "our history of poor facility choices that we're still paying for now."

Fink said the liability is a long-term lack of creativity. "I'm an entrepreneur," he said. "I'm driven to find new solutions to old problems. Continuing to teach and plan like we did 30 years is not going to work."

The Board of Education candidate forum will begin airing on public access FairTV on Saturday morning.