LOCAL POLITICS

Quote's context sheds better light on LAUSD candidate George McKenna

Campaign mailer from George McKenna's school board opponent misuses quote from Sandy Banks column
There's plenty to question about school board candidate George McKenna, but he's hardly an uncaring 'failure'

It was one line from a column of mine about the response of Los Angeles Unified officials to revelations of child abuse by a teacher at Miramonte Elementary.

I'd quoted senior administrator George McKenna telling a community meeting that Miramonte's principal was not to blame and parents "ought to be grateful" for the principal's leadership.

Two years later that "ought to be grateful" phrase wound up on a campaign mailer, suggesting that McKenna — who is running for school board — doesn't care about the safety of students.

The flier is the product of McKenna's opponent, Alex Johnson, who has spent four years working on education issues for Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Johnson's campaign says the mailer is aimed at debunking "the myth of McKenna," who drew national acclaim almost 30 years ago, when his tough-love reform of troubled Washington Prep High was made into a TV movie, with Denzel Washington playing McKenna.

"If he's going to take credit for that, then everybody ought to take a look at what he's done since then," said Johnson campaign consultant Roy Behr. The mailer blames McKenna for "FAILED SCHOOLS. FALSE CLAIMS. FISCAL MISMANAGEMENT. FAILURE TO PROTECT KIDS."

I understand that politics is war, and a candidate's words and record are fair targets.

But McKenna wasn't excusing child molesters in that comment from my column. He was defending Miramonte's staff — which was about to be replaced by Supt. John Deasy in a wholesale housecleaning aimed at clearing the taint of child abuse from the South Los Angeles campus.

McKenna didn't agree with that move, but was tasked with carrying it out. He spent hours each week helping teachers-in-exile cope with shock, frustration and grief, and cheered — along with parents and students — when they were allowed to return to Miramonte six months later.

Is McKenna old-school? Yes. He can also be blunt, impatient, demanding and unyielding.

But I have never seen or heard anything that makes me doubt his commitment to students.

::

The race between Johnson and McKenna is for a South Los Angeles school board seat that's been empty since the death seven months ago of Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte. The special election is Aug. 12; less than 10% of the area's voters are expected to turn out.

Low turnouts tend to favor the candidate with the most enthusiastic supporters. That would probably be McKenna, who began his career as a teacher in Watts and spent half a century in local school districts loaded with low-income kids. He won 44% of the vote in a crowded June primary, and has adopted the campaign slogan "The community's choice."

But Johnson stands to benefit from his association with Ridley-Thomas, who's considered a kingmaker by politicians in black Los Angeles. He has spent twice as much money as McKenna and relies on savvy political pros for campaign advice.

Johnson's campaign consultant calls McKenna "a status quo guy" who has failed to deliver relief to troubled schools. Behr defended the mailers that portray McKenna as lax on student safety and indifferent to parents' concerns.

"Nobody's questioning his personality or his motives," Behr said. "We're simply raising questions about his performance."

The campaign is relying on a political staple in trashing the front-runner. There's certainly plenty to question in McKenna's 50-year career, which includes mixed reviews of his stints in Inglewood, Compton and Pasadena.

But branding McKenna a "failure" suggests naivete about what it takes to significantly improve perpetually struggling schools. It's painstaking work, marked by huge obstacles and small victories — and problems so deep they can't be fixed by iPads or side-stepped by charter schools.

By the logic of Johnson's campaign, McKenna is suspect because he hasn't always had the kind of success his Hollywood movie projects.

Even Johnson's boss might recognize that perspective has its problems.

Twenty years ago, Ridley-Thomas rose to McKenna's defense when a politically divided Inglewood school board voted not to renew his contract as superintendent.

Board members blamed McKenna for the district's budget problems; they'd granted bigger pay raises than he'd advised and wound up in a hole.

That's what Johnson's mailers now call McKenna's "fiscal mismanagement."

But back then, Ridley-Thomas — then a Los Angeles city councilman described in The Times as McKenna's "longtime friend and colleague" — called the Inglewood decision "just nonsensical."

::

It's easy to pluck a phrase from a newspaper story and make it say what you want.

So for a little context, here are other McKenna comments from my columns that might not make the Johnson campaign's cut.

In 2000, I criticized McKenna for imposing such a strict staff dress code in South L.A. that a male teacher couldn't wear an earring because McKenna considered that a hallmark of gang membership.

I thought that was demeaning to teachers and socially out of sync. McKenna lectured me about students who'd been shot for wearing the wrong thing: "I have an obligation to set standards that are wholesome and safe for students and that's what I'm trying to do."

Two years later, McKenna was an assistant superintendent in Pasadena when a flap erupted over a white teacher's contention that unruly black students were responsible for low test scores and poor teacher morale at Muir High School.

I wrote about a public forum on the comment and included this quote from McKenna: "If children are disruptive, let's say that. Let's not say they're disruptive because they're black."

McKenna reminded the crowd that almost half of Muir's students lived in poverty, one-third came from single-parent homes, and 1 in 10 lived in shelters or group homes. Teachers who couldn't accept that the stress of students' lives might spill onto the campus "ought to be teaching in Beverly Hills," he said.

And two years ago when McKenna retired from L.A. Unified, I interviewed him for hours, retracing the steps and missteps of his long career.

"He wasn't a miracle worker," I wrote then. "But he was a wise and tireless advocate for underachieving, underprivileged kids."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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