Published: Apr 20, 2011 3:27 AM EDT
Updated: Apr 19, 2011 11:39 PM EDT

COLLIER COUNTY, Fla.- Collier County's search for a new superintendent is now down to just two candidates. On Tuesday night, the community got their first chance to ask the tough questions to the finalists.

Michele LaBute and Kamela Patton each bring different strengths. LaBute has some 40 years experience with the Collier County School District, while Patton's served as a head administrator in Miami-Dade, the fourth largest district in the country. But Tuesday night, the public got their first chance to size them up during a Q&A session.

About 60 community members packed in to get their first peek at two women vying to lead the Collier County School District. The event, emceed by WINK News anchor Lois Thome, asked the candidates questions submitted by the community. LaBute stressed her dedication to a district she's served for decades.

"This district is my passion. This is what I love, serving the School District of Collier County and the students of Collier County," LaBute said Tuesday.

Both candidates agreed on one thing: communication within the school system must be improved. Patton, who is also a finalist in Lee County's superintendent search, emphasized her extensive experience leading Miami-Dade's 345,000 students.

"Collier's a good school system. This is not a broken system that needs someone to come in and make all kinds of changes. But what you can do is make enhancements to an already strong district," Patton said Tuesday.

Both candidates talked about the need to close up the achievement gap for Collier's growing diverse student population. LaBute says she can hit the ground running, since she's already knows the in's and out's of Collier.

"I'm already doing so much preparing for next year. I know the people, I know the system, and I have the trust of the people of the system and much of the community," LaBute said.

But Patton says her wide-range in experience makes her the right fit for the job.

"When you see that your skill set strongly matches where there's a need, that's why there's such an attraction to Collier," Patton said.

Both candidates will sit through their last round of interviews Wednesday afternoon. The school board is expected to choose a new superintendent following the interviews.