Kohann H. Whitney grew up discussing local politics around the dinner table in her Ohio home, so it was only natural, she said, to get involved in local government.
After she moved to Fairfax County 15 years ago, she volunteered in campaigns for individual candidates and school bond referendums. Along the way, she met Martha V. Pennino, Board of Supervisors vice chairman, and worked as her assistant for eight years.
Whitney's tie to Pennino paid off last month when Pennino nominated and the board appointed Whitney, 40, for a two-year term representing Pennino's Centreville district on the county School Board, which oversees the nation's 10th largest school system.
"If I have any orientation, it's in public service," Whitney said.
She left Pennino's office in 1984 to become business development manager for the county's Economic Development Authority, working to attract new businesses and encouraging existing ones to expand.
Those who have worked with her in Reston civic activities, county government and Democratic politics describe Whitney as well-informed, aggressive and politically savvy.
"What she brings now is experience not only in her present employment but also eight years of observation close-hand of the School Board and the school system," Pennino said.
"She's very creative in her thinking. With the new superintendent coming in who appears very innovative, I think it's going to be a good working relationship."
Displaying a politician's caution in an interview, Whitney was reluctant to be pinned down on specific issues until she takes over July 1 from Carmin C. (Chuck) Caputo, who was Pennino's board appointee for five years.
Pennino said she replaced Caputo because she likes to rotate her appointments regularly.
Why did Whitney want to be on the school board?
"The school system is one of the most important services county government provides," she said.
What areas will she concentrate on as a School Board member?
"Making sure children have a wide range of opportunities and that our programs can meet those diverse needs, including those mentally and physically handicapped, gifted and talented, and the vast majority who don't fit in any of those categories," she said.
Whitney likes the current emphasis on basic skills and believes it is important to teach children to think critically and creatively.
She said she is impressed with new techniques to teach learning-disabled children, and she wants to ensure that all children know the computer skills they will need in the next century.
Whitney, who is divorced, will be the School Board's only single parent in a county with a growing number of single parents. She brushes off questions about whether that background will help her on the School Board: "There may be a perspective I will bring, but basically, my marital status is irrelevant," she said.
Whitney has a son in eighth grade at Langston Hughes Intermediate School; he will attend Herndon High School next year.
Whitney said her unusual first name -- which rhymes with Jo Ann -- derives from her grandfather's last name, Kohn, and her great-grandmother's first name, Anna.
The major issue in her Centreville district right now, she said, is growth. Young families are heading west, to Herndon, Reston and other areas she represents; they want good schools, she said, and are willing to vote for school bonds to build them.
Whitney said she has no other political ambitions at the moment. "I've got a lot on my plate right now," she said.
Whitney will join Frank Francois, the minority appointee, and Kim Willoughby, the nonvoting student representative, as new members of the 10-member board. She will come to a school system in transition: the new superintendent, Robert R. Spillane, and the deputy superintendent, Herman Howard, also take over July 1.
Spillane has expressed concern that at least two of the 10 School Board members who appointed him will be gone by the time he arrives. But Whitney said she is in support of the board's vote to name Spillane as the replacement for William J. Burkholder as superintendent of the Washington area's largest school system.