At a forum last month where Fairfax County residents were invited to question school board candidates, one member of the audience made a point of describing a conversation her teen-age son once had with school board member Ann Kahn.
Her son, the woman said, had called Kahn to ask about the teachers' job protest last year.
"She talked to him for 20 minutes," the woman said incredulously.
The willlingness to discuss the issues with all of her constituents -- parents, students, teachers, school administrators -- has brought Kahn widespread respect and praise in Fairfax County.
It also helped her win reappointment to the school board and last week, the unanimous support of fellow board members who close her as their new chairman.
In Fairax County, the chairman is an equal voting member of the board and wields little definitive power. Thus, for Kahn, who has taken strong stands on several controversial issues, her stature with peers and the community could be crucial in her efforts to direct the 10-member board.
As chairman, Kahn says, she will be "an equal among equals."
"The chairman's job is to facilitate the board's actions, to help people come to a conclusion," Kahn says. "It does not provide added power."
Kahn treats her board post as a full-time job and prides herself on being available to her constituents. She has a listed phone number and passes it out freely at public meetings.
But don't try calling Kahn during the day -- she's invariably out visiting the schools.
Her frequent trips to the classroom, she says, allow her to stay in close contact with the people she represents. That open line of communication may have been the primary reason Kahn was able win reappointment to a fourth term this spring, despite her vote during the school closings issue to shut down two schools in her own Providence District.
"Visiting the school's is enormously valuable," says Kahn. "It's very difficult to pass policy and then not go into the classrooms to see how it is working.
"Very often what looks good on paper is very hard to implement."
Throughout the agonizing school closing study, Kahn steadfastly maintained that the process had been designed by citizens and should be followed regardless of attempts to save specific schools.
During a heated debate over the closing of Walnut Hill Elementary School in Providence, Kahn pulled no punches with her constituents and eventually voted, along with the board majority, to close the school.
The school closings provided a glimpse of how Kahn deals with most issues: she is fair-minded, but tough.
When school opens in the fall, observers say, the board probably will face many of the same issues that have come before it in previous years.
The two issues that have created the most discussion and controversy in Fairfax have been school closings and sex education.
On both issues, Kahn says she has not changed her views.
She says that where necessary and after the required citizen input she will support school closings.
In regard to sex education, Kahn has been unflinching in her support of the program much debate on the board and in the community. This fall, the board will consider revising the program after the school staff outlines its recommendations for improving, and possibly expanding, the current course.
Last year Kahn chaired the board instruction committee which recommended that the sex education curriculum be revised. Kahn says she is hopeful curriculum specialists will come up with a more relevant program and offers a suggestion of her own. In addition to regular sex education courses, she suggests, the schools could offer a program for parents who believe that sex education should be taught in the home.
Kahn can expect stiff opposition to any proposal to expand the program, and opponents promise to be better organized and prepared than ever before.
They also can expect strong support from an outgoing school board member, Robert Smith. (Although Smith resigned in June, he has been temporarily reappointed by Supervisor Audrey Moore (D -- Annandale) with the understanding he will resign when Moore names a permanent successor).
This week, Smith confirmed that he expects to join the citizens opposed to revision of the sex education program. Smith said her originally supported the program when it first was proposed three years ago, despite warnings from opponents that the proposal was just the beginning of plans that could result in the board approving an expanded and more liberal program.
"Lo and behold, they were right," saidi Smith. "I plan to look very closely at the proposed sex education program when it is ready this fall, but I doubt I will be able to support it if it includes the topics of abortion and homosexuality."
Despite these early warnings, Kahn shows no sign of backing down. She contends that opponents of sex education represent a small but vocal minority and vows that she will be strongly behind revisions which would improve the program.
Present economic indicators also point to another battle for the school dollar, which may lead to renewed employe dissatisfaction with wages. Teachers have warned that they are ready to return to work-to-the-rule job protest if their standard of living is further eroded by inflation.
Kahn notes, however, that her frequent contacts and "freewheeling" gripe sessions with teachers have helped diffuse some of the tensions.
How much, if any influence Kahn will bring to the board remains to be seen. A major factor may be the addition of three new board members.
In the past, many new members have apparently looked no further than to the member seated on their left or right for direction. But if Kahn is able to maintain her current standing with the community and the board, it would not be surprising if the newcomers look to her for direction.
From all accounts, if they choose to seek her advice, they will find a strong-minded and independent leader, one who makes it her business to know the the feelings and needs her community -- but one who is not afraid to make touch, unpopular decisions if she believes they ultimately will benefit Fairfax County schools.