George McKenna sworn in for L.A. school board seat at City Hall

The estimated cost of special election for a 10-month L.A. school board term is $2.5 million

Veteran school administrator George McKenna took office Friday as the newest member of the Los Angeles Board of Education following a special election that could cost the school system an estimated $2.5 million.

McKenna, 73, won a hard-fought, expensive campaign last week against 34-year-old Alex Johnson, an aide to L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. According to the most recent campaign filings, money spent to elect McKenna totaled about $527,000, while dollars spent on behalf of Johnson added up to more than $1.4 million. 

Johnson's backers included L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson, who presided over the brief special morning meeting in which the council certified the results and then watched the swearing in.

In the Aug. 12 election, 32,537 voters, or 9.5% of those registered, cast ballots. McKenna had 17,025 votes, or 52%, to 15,211, or 47%, for Johnson. Combined, the campaigns spent about $60 per vote.

"We had a very well run and clean election despite the turnout,” said City Clerk Holly Wolcott, who cited "biodegradable supplies at poll sites” as an advance that would be carried into the future. These included the signs posted at every polling station and the bags used to transport supplies.

McKenna could prove a pivotal vote in the nation's second-largest school system on issues such as contract negotiations, teacher evaluations and the use of technology in schools. He had the backing of the teachers union.

Johnson was supported by charter-school advocates and many backers of L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. Johnson, this week, accepted a nomination from Ridley-Thomas to serve on the board that oversees the L.A. County Office of Education.

Council members, including Wesson, rose to applaud McKenna, whose career as a local educator spans more than five decades, much of it as a senior administrator. Two years ago, the council had honored him at City Hall when he retired.

"I was content in my retirement--busy but content,” McKenna said when Wesson invited him to speak. McKenna said he never would have run for office except for two factors--the death, last December, of predecessor Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte and the urging of community leaders to fill her shoes.

McKenna spoke of school as the one place, under the law, that children must be. Every other law applying to children is about things they can't do, but school is a positive obligation for them, he said. Helping them succeed and remain safe is "your role as City Council people and my role as board member.”

The new board member wanted to be sworn in quickly so he could immediately receive board materials, including confidential items, to prepare for Tuesday's meeting. Standing by was Jefferson Crain, the executive officer for the school board, who immediately handed McKenna a binder with hundreds of pages of briefing documents. 

At school district headquarters on Tuesday, McKenna will be sworn in again by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. And there will be a third ceremony at Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles, where McKenna once was a highly regarded principal.

McKenna is filling an unfinished term that will last about 10 months. He plans to run again for the full four-year term in an election scheduled for March.

Serving as a board member is the beginning and end of his political ambitions, McKenna stated. 

"I’m not seeking another profession" other than education, he said. "This is what I know how to do better than most.”

Twitter: @howardblume

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