Two nights after a City Council campaign forum that drew nearly 100 people, a crowd of just about one-third that size went to the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul to hear five school board candidates discuss the district's racial achievement gap.

But it was clear from the words, or more accurately, one word, from Board Chairwoman Jean O'Connell, that this was one serious subject.

"Horrific," she said of the 45-to-47-percent disparity in proficiency rates between white and black students who took the state's standardized tests in reading, math and science.

O'Connell defended the board's passage this summer of a racial equity policy -- the second in the state -- and its hiring of a California consulting group to help teachers, administrators and others tackle questions such as: Why are black students more likely to be suspended from school or referred to special-education services for misbehaving than those of other ethnic groups?

"We have to look at it," she said. "This is critical for our city."

O'Connell and fellow incumbent John Brodrick are among five candidates vying for three seats on Nov. 5. Both incumbents have DFL Party endorsement, as does newcomer Chue Vue, co-founder and senior partner of the law firm United Legal Associates and a former chairman of the Hmong American Partnership.

The other challengers -- both of whom joined the DFL endorsees at Thursday's forum -- are Terrance Bushard and Greg Copeland. Copeland is chairman of the St. Paul Republican City Committee and a longtime critic of school district spending.

Vue said that he believed the district was on the right track in its efforts to erase the achievement gap.

Bushard, who described himself as aimless in his early college years, said: "Somehow schools have to find a way to motivate kids." To a question -- provided in advance -- about the racial equity policy, he said simply: "I don't know anything about it."

Copeland said that the district should stop paying a consulting group to teach college-educated adults how to treat people with respect and use the money instead to hire more aides to assist teachers in classrooms and counselors to help develop education plans for students who want to make something of their lives.

He said the achievement gap was not about race but about poverty -- a point disputed by O'Connell. 

This summer, the school board aimed to affirm its commitment to closing the achievement gap by adopting a racial equity policy that reflected 2 1/2 years of work and "courageous conversations" about race -- candid talk facilitated by a partnership with the California consulting group, Pacific Educational Group.

The board also voted, 6-1, to enter into a new $380,000 agreement with Pacific Educational Group for the 2013-14 school year, after having paid more than $850,000 to the consulting firm during the previous three years. Brodrick, who thought the district could carry on with the work on its own, cast the "no" vote.

He also voted against adoption of the racial equity policy. But he emphasized Thursday that it was because he wanted more information, not because he didn't support the effort, which he does, he said.

In 2013 state tests, 71 percent of the district's white students were proficient in both math and reading, exceeding their state peers in both categories. Sixty-nine percent had been proficient in math in the previous year.

Asian and American Indian students narrowed their respective gaps with white students by posting 5 percent gains in math proficiency, while black students posted a 2 percent gain, leaving the gap between them and whites unchanged.

Only one minority group, Hispanic students, saw a widening of the achievement gap in math, when their results fell by 1 percent from a year ago.

The math results for minority groups showed that 44 percent of Asian students were proficient, 33 percent of American Indian students were proficient, 32 percent of Hispanic students were proficient and 26 percent of black students were proficient.

Asian students are the district's largest ethnic group, at 31.4 percent, followed by black students at 29.6 percent, whites at 23.7 percent, Hispanic students at 13.6 percent and American Indians at 1.8 percent. School staff members are 83 percent white and 61 percent of administrators are white.

Vue, who is Hmong, was the first of the DFL candidates to win endorsement during the party's city convention in June. O'Connell and Brodrick are white.

Among the five school board candidates, only the DFL endorsees had filed campaign finance reports as of Thursday. The September filings showed O'Connell raising the most money to date, with $17,355 in contributions and a then-current balance of $7,301.