Inglewood Schools Offer Post to McKenna

Times Staff Writer

George McKenna’s signature isn’t on a contract yet.

But school board members say it is almost certain that McKenna will accept the job of Inglewood Unified School District superintendent, and his name has sparked hope, speculation and doubts in a district that some say could use a savior.

At their meeting Monday, Inglewood board members voted unanimously to offer the superintendency of the 15,000-student district to McKenna, the principal of Washington Preparatory High School in south Los Angeles. Board members said they met with McKenna on Monday during executive session and reached an informal agreement, pending details of a contract.

McKenna, the early favorite among many board members and community leaders, went on leave from the Los Angeles Unified School District last week. Efforts to reach him have been unsuccessful. Board members said he has agreed not to discuss the Inglewood job until a news conference scheduled for Tuesday.


The 48-year old principal has gained national acclaim for transforming Washington from a tough inner-city school with tough inner-city problems into a school stressing hard work and parental involvement, where the dropout rate has declined and the percentage of students going to college has risen.

President Reagan and Gov. George Deukmejian, among others, have called McKenna a hero of public education. His experiences were the subject of a 1986 made-for-television movie.

Some Inglewood school and community leaders interviewed this week said their strife-torn district needs a leader with that kind of star quality. They said McKenna’s reputation for charisma and toughness will be put to the test in a district where an openly factionalized school board tends to dominate administrators and where the administration struggles against a powerful teachers union. In addition, parents complain that test scores are disappointing.

“I believe he may be the best person for Inglewood at this time,” said one district administrator, who asked to remain anonymous. “You have to be able to deal with the board in Inglewood. I hope there will be a new lease on life with him.”


The school district is also reeling from more than $3 million in budget cuts. Over bitter opposition, programs were slashed and personnel laid off, including top administrators.

Board members and district employees acknowledge that McKenna’s lack of experience at an administrative level higher than principal will force him to learn fast.

“He’s a quick study,” said board member Larry Aubry. “He will learn what needs to be learned.”

Aubry said the board hopes that McKenna’s tenure as superintendent will be a turning point in the history of the predominantly black and Latino district. Many Inglewood residents say the future of the city as a prosperous, middle-class community depends on a well-managed school district, free of political interference and able to educate minority youth.


“He has a real sense for the needs of minority youngsters,” Aubry said. “He rolls up his sleeves and goes to work. We could see some real changes.”

McKenna would succeed Supt. Rex Fortune, who resigned July 1 after a sometimes stormy five-year tenure. McKenna was offered the Inglewood job, and declined it, in 1985, when Fortune was abruptly fired by the board, then rehired.

That incident, which Fortune said resulted from his reluctance to make a political appointment demanded by board members, illustrates the high-intensity political environment that awaits McKenna.

Those who expressed reservations about McKenna cited his lack of high-level administrative experience, his initially contentious relationship with teachers at Washington High and the manner in which he was selected by Inglewood board members.


“I don’t feel anything negative” about McKenna, said Inglewood Teachers Assoc. president Ken Franklin. But he echoed the complaints of others who said the board’s process of reviewing applicants was a “farce” because McKenna became the clear favorite of board members and community leaders soon after Fortune resigned in July.

About 30 educators from around the nation applied for the superintendency. Nine were interviewed last weekend by a committee of 15 community leaders and district employees and by board members. McKenna’s selection was announced Monday. According to consultant William Hawkins, he was given the highest score of all the candidates by the citizens committee.

“There were people with more educational and management experience than McKenna,” Franklin said. “My greatest concern is that we would get someone who has not been at that level of management. We would be a guinea pig.”

Franklin also pointed out that over 100 teachers transferred from Washington during the first years of McKenna’s 10-year tenure as principal. Some district employees said teachers are concerned about McKenna’s reputation for putting great demands on teachers.


But others said they hope McKenna will get tough with the teachers union, which they say has too much power in Inglewood. After a brief walkout in 1987, the union gained a 14% raise over two years that has been blamed for the district’s financial woes.

Former board member William (Tony) Draper, who clashed with teachers over that raise, said: “He’ll be strong in dealing with the teachers’ union. That was the glaring weakness that Dr. Fortune had: He just continued to lay down to them. McKenna will know that unless he gets control of teachers, he’ll never be successful in teaching kids.”