Last Monday night I sat with my laptop, fingers tapping, in the auditorium of Alameda High's Little Theater taking notes on the school board debate. The turnout wasn't bad considering how few people tend to show up for these nitty-gritty local civic events.

The four candidates who attended (incumbent Janet Gibson was out of town) were tired, having just come from another similar forum. But David Forbes, Ron Mooney, Trish Spencer and Niel Tam bravely answered tough questions — primarily budget-related — about issues that face the Alameda Unified School District.

It's important to point out that each of the five candidates has a long track record of volunteerism in Alameda schools. They've served on boards and committees, they've raised money, they've built coalitions, they've fought for increased funding and they've gone to morning meetings and afternoon meetings and evening meetings.

They've put their hearts and souls into improving our district.

So let us have respect for these five individuals, all of whom are vying for a position that comes with a huge workload, bucket loads of responsibility and yet pays nothing.

So I thank them all. We all should thank them all.

With a lame-duck school superintendent (Ardella Dailey resigned effective in January) and board president Bill Schaff stepping down after the November election, AUSD needs powerful board leadership.

We need strong, intelligent leaders (I'd argue brilliant ... and luckily we have a few candidates who fit the bill) who understand the complex (and sometimes bizarre) laws and regulations governing everything in public school administration, from curriculum to funding. We need school board members who can step up and be bold, coalition-building leaders. This is no time for messing around.

Three candidates rise to the top: Incumbent David Forbes and newcomers Ron Mooney and Niel Tam.

To call Mooney and Tam newcomers is a slight misnomer. Mooney has been active in education for decades. Before moving to Alameda in 1997, he served five years on Emeryville's School board and, in Alameda, he has been active in many school groups , PTA Council and Keep Alameda Schools Excellent.

Mooney, like David Forbes, is one of those smarter-than-smart guys you want at the helm of things (despite the populist notions drifting about in our society than political leadership requires no expertise).

Both Mooney have Forbes have an impressive grasp of the issues facing Alameda schools, a clear vision for leadership, and an enduring commitment to doing right by all the school children of Alameda. Forbes has served ably during a rocky time on the board, and has a long history of commitment to the district, both in parcel tax and bond issue campaigns, and as a past PTA council president.

Tam is a just-retired district teacher who was, most recently, principal at Washington Elementary. Tam brings 38 years of educational known-how to the table. He knows how the AUSD works, how it can be improved, and will be a calm, consensus-building force on a board that is currently not working nearly as harmoniously as we might hope. Tam speaks clearly and directly, has a demonstrated commitment to serving all students, and the board will be well-served by his membership.

In November, our best chances for solid, sophisticated leadership will come from voting in Mooney and Tam and re-electing Forbes.

"In spite of all the distractions, the message everyone should get is that the schools are really doing a very good job," Forbes told me the other day. "It's easy to get caught up in the adult issues of finances and forget that there's a lot of good stuff going on every day, in every classroom, in every school."

Let Mooney, Forbes and Tam lead. Let Alameda's children learn.

Eve Pearlman has two children in Alameda public schools. She is an active school volunteer and formerly served on the board of the Alameda Education Foundation. She also writes the Alameda Journal Blog. Look for news, impressions and opinion at www.ibabuzz.com/alamedajournal.