Six candidates for Baltimore's highest office squared off on fixing the city's schools, boosting the economy and fighting crime at a forum hosted by one of the city's largest churches Tuesday evening.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was conspicuously absent from the mayoral candidates' debate, which drew more than 400 spectators to Northwest Baltimore's Empowerment Temple. Rawlings-Blake was slated to visit eight National Night Out events throughout the evening.

The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple, called out Rawlings-Blake in his opening remarks. "Having not the luxury to address the black church tonight, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake," said Bryant, pausing as audience members shook their heads.

Moderator and former lieutenant governor Michael Steele began the discussion by asking the participants how they would define a failing school and how they would fix the school system, in the wake of declining test scores and evidence of cheating by teachers and administrators.

Former city planning director Otis Rolley drew cheers when he described city schools as feeling like "prison preps, not college preps." He said he wanted to return to mayoral control of the school system, build or renovate 50 schools in a decade and offer "opportunity scholarships" — or vouchers — to students at the worst-performing middle schools.

State Sen. Catherine Pugh — who jabbed at Rawlings-Blake for being absent — pointed out that construction would soon begin on a fashion, design and architecture high school that she had co-founded along with Maryland Institute College of Art President Fred Lazarus.

Pugh said she would increase the city's tax base to boost funding for schools and seek donations for schools from philanthropists.

Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, former head of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, complained about the power wielded by schools CEO Andrés Alonso. "He's kind of running the school system like a dictator," Landers said. He disputed Rolley's plan to build new schools, saying that the staff and students inside mattered more.

Clerk of Courts Frank M. Conaway Sr. said that he would fight for an elected school board and that schools were better when he attended — under segregation. Both nurse Wilton Wilson and Vicki Ann Harding, the lone Republican on the panel, said that they would immediately fire Alonso. Harding blamed the cheating scandal on Alonso.

Rolley urged residents to fight for school reform, saying it was "heartbreaking" that the cheating scandal and plummeting scores had not provoked more of an outcry.

Many of the candidates criticized Rawlings-Blake's spending decisions, saying that they would cut tax breaks for big development projects and direct more funding to programs in neighborhoods.

"The investment should be in neighborhoods, not downtown," said Pugh.

Rolley said that he would double funding for summer jobs and after school programs — which he said would ultimately reduce crime.

Pugh said that she did not trust crime statistics and would audit the Police Department.

Rolley said that the best way to improve the Police Department would be by replacing the mayor.

"The first way we change the Police Department is by firing the Police Department's boss — Stephanie Rawlings-Blake," he said.

Pugh said that she would cut city spending and said that she had determined that $12 million could be slashed from the Police Department's budget.

Conaway disputed the other challengers' plans to cut property taxes, dismissing them as "hey diddle diddle."

He said his top three priorities for the city were "jobs, jobs, jobs" and said he would push to widen the Howard Street train tunnel to create more blue-collar jobs.

Landers said leaders must bring "radical change" to the city's tax structure and significantly lower the property tax rate, which is more than twice that of surrounding counties.

"If we continue to do what we have been doing, we will fail," he said.

The candidates — including Rawlings-Blake — will face off Thursday at a forum on disabilities.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com