A savvy group of Central High seniors schooled the mayoral candidates yesterday with tough questions on crime, education and cheesesteaks.

"Candidates need to address students and not just give lip service," said government teacher Michael Horwits, who dreamed up the forum that featured a student moderator and three student panelists, all of whom had to audition for the roles.

Four of the five Democratic mayoral candidates appeared before about 100 students - U.S. Reps. Bob Brady and Chaka Fattah, businessman Tom Knox and former Councilman Michael Nutter. State Rep. Dwight Evans was scheduled to be in Harrisburg for budget hearings.

Republican candidate Al Taubenberger also was in the lineup.

In the initial round of questions, all said they supported educational achievement, and would push for a safer city and a more open and ethical City Hall. But as the event moved on, the students pushed hard for more information.

Fattah was questioned about his interest in a congestion charge for commuters driving into Center City at peak hours. He said he supported further research into the idea.

"The president of the United States has put forth $100 million for 25 cities to study congestion charges," Fattah said, noting that he'd like Philly to be one of those cities.

Knox was asked how he would help fund the arts in Philadelphia schools. He said he wanted to establish a director of arts and culture and that he supported bringing the Barnes Foundation to the city, but failed to answer the original question.

"I think that's about it," he said.

Asked what bill he had gotten passed that he was most proud of, Brady cited getting a $15 million grant for the University of Pennsylvania to procure a proton-beam "knife" that can be used for cancer treatment.

"The thing I do best is the money I bring in," he said.

Asked how he would reduce taxes, Nutter said he would reduce business taxes and noted that he pushed for tax cuts while on City Council.

"I will continue to support additional reductions in our taxes," he said.

Taubenberger was queried about developing the Delaware River waterfront. He said he would support mixed uses, with industry and residential development along the river.

The candidates then had to think fast during a "lightning round," in which they had to give one-word answers to questions. Some of the results:

Should the school district have renewed CEO Paul Vallas' contract? Brady and Knox said no, while Fattah, Nutter and Taubenberger said yes.

What letter grade would they give to Mayor Street? Brady: B. Fattah: B to B+. Knox: C. Nutter: B-. Taubenberger: C.

Pat's or Geno's? Brady and Taubenberger said Pat's; the others, Geno's.

Favorite musical act? Brady: Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge. Fattah: John Legend. Knox: Frank Sinatra. Nutter: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Taubenberger: Frank Sinatra.

Although no winner was declared, the three student panelists - Corey Abramson and Ricki Dean, both 17, and Sarah Decker, 18 - all said they came away with the same favorite: Nutter.

"I feel like he has the most experience in our city's government," Decker said.

Nutter, Cox, Brady and Taubenberger also answered questions for two hours last night at a forum sponsored by the Chestnut Hill Community Association. *