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A Hero Falls From Favor : Famed Inglewood School Supt. George McKenna on the Way Out

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the Hollywood version, the George J. McKenna story ended in triumph, with the hero turning a troubled inner-city school into a premier educational institution.

The real-life ending might be murkier.

McKenna, whose days as crusader principal of Washington Preparatory High School in Los Angeles were celebrated in a 1986 television movie, is trying to save his career as superintendent of the Inglewood schools.

Inglewood’s school board recently announced that it will not renew the contract of the 53-year-old superintendent, whom critics call arrogant and supporters describe as visionary. That move came amid actions by county and state education officials to assign fiscal overseers to the district, saying it has come close to insolvency and failed in prudent fiscal planning.

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The controversy over McKenna has stretched beyond the city limits, distressing black leaders around the county, with some demanding to know how the school board can justify ousting an educator respected nationally as an advocate of urban schools.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, a longtime friend and colleague of McKenna, said: “It’s just nonsensical to me.”

McKenna is saying little about the board’s 3-2 vote of no confidence, except that he believes that by June, when his contract expires, the community will conclude that he has done a good job and persuade the board to keep him.

On the face of it, McKenna’s troubles would seem a stunning personal reversal for an educator who once attracted the attention of the White House.

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The Inglewood situation, though, is like that of other urban districts, where budgets are collapsing, politics are intense, and hostilities break out between board members and the superintendent they hired to save their schools. Indeed, the tenure of urban school chiefs is increasingly brief.

Joseph Fernandez, for example, became chancellor of New York City schools based on his reputation as Miami’s innovative superintendent. Three years later, New York fired him as he was being mentioned as a possible candidate for secretary of education in the Clinton Administration.

Former Los Angeles schools chief Bill Anton was on the job 26 months before he threw in the towel, saying strife with the board and the teachers union had made it impossible for him to continue. And in San Jose, the average tenure of a superintendent during the 1980s dropped to three years.

“The big year was 1990, when 20 of the 25 largest school superintendencies (in the country) were vacant,” said Michael Kirst, a Stanford University professor who studies the politics of education.

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Compared to some urban superintendents, McKenna has had a long run in Inglewood.

He arrived in 1988 a celebrity, having earned star status as a tough, compassionate principal who transformed a gang-plagued, graffiti-ridden school into an oasis of excellence. Inglewood well-wishers greeted him in “George McKenna Fan Club” T-shirts.

Under McKenna, Washington Prep’s student absence rate fell from about 30% to 10%, the number of graduates going to college rose dramatically, and the percentage of African-Americans taking chemistry, physics and advanced math exceeded the statewide average.

“I think he convinced the community that you didn’t have to take a bus out of the neighborhood to get a quality education,” said Sylvia Rousseau, McKenna’s assistant principal at Washington and now the principal of Santa Monica High School.

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In the CBS-TV movie about McKenna’s Washington Prep days, the tall, handsome, dignified Denzel Washington portrayed the fiery principal with the gift for oratory. McKenna, a short man who looms large at the microphone, has held forth in forums ranging from ABC’s “Nightline” to last year’s National League of Cities convention in New Orleans, where his speech drew raves.

These days in Inglewood, though, McKenna is under constant--often bitter--attack.

“Dr. McKenna is egotistic and arrogant,” said Thomasina Reed, one of the board members who voted against renewing his contract. “I think McKenna has always had a history of being self-centered, me-centered, believing he is more capable or more important than he is.”

Among those who rushed to his defense at a recent school board meeting were a number of prominent African-American leaders, including Ridley-Thomas, Urban League President John Mack and Danny Bakewell, head of the Brotherhood Crusade.

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But those who voted to oust the superintendent--Reed, Lois Hill Hale and Loystene Irvin--said they were unmoved by the pleas of outsiders. Some activists in the Inglewood district cannot wait for McKenna to leave. William Jenkins, whose children attended district schools and who was on the search committee that recommended McKenna’s hiring, insists that there were more qualified candidates.

“He doesn’t know how to manage the district, and the board did a service to the community by voting not to renew his contact,” said Jenkins, who did not support McKenna’s selection. McKenna’s critics say he is a global thinker who cannot solve day-to-day problems. They blame him for not improving academic performance, although he has faced crushing problems. State funding cuts aggravated budget gaps in the low-income district where enrollment has been swelling, leading to a shortage of classroom space and bilingual teachers.

Critics also blame him for deficit-ridden budgets, although McKenna last year warned against employee pay hikes. The board granted raises anyway, then had to dock workers’ paychecks when it ran out of money. The 1% pay cut for all employees was only one cost-saving measure to erase a $1.2-million deficit.

No group has been as critical of McKenna as the teachers union. Former union President Kenneth Franklin, a teacher at Monroe Junior High School, accuses McKenna of wanting to bust the union. “At Washington High School,” Franklin said, “a lot of teachers left because they couldn’t deal with his dictatorial style.”

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When McKenna arrived in Inglewood, Franklin said, he failed to consult with teacher leaders. “If I’m a voice, a powerful voice,” Franklin said, “then it would be wise to meet and see how we can lessen the conflict between us.”

McKenna’s relations with teachers have never been smooth. Washington Prep teachers said those who bucked him were pressured to transfer. And McKenna openly scorns the mediocrity he says is common in the teaching profession.

Larry Aubry, one of the two board members who voted to renew McKenna’s contract, acknowledges that some consider the superintendent arrogant. “He rubs some people the wrong way, no doubt about it,” Aubry said.

But McKenna’s supporters say the superintendent is simply a self-confident idealist who has challenged a school system run by politicians with agendas and constituencies of their own.

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Aubry, although reluctant to criticize other board members, nevertheless says some of his colleagues are “very ambitious” and tend to micro-manage, particularly when it comes to jobs. Former board member Joseph Rouzan, whose term expired in April, said McKenna cannot transfer a janitor without board approval.

“Even picking his personal staff, McKenna had to go to the board for approval,” Rouzan said. “All principals and assistant principals, they actually have an interview with the board. There’s a lot of lobbying.”

Both of Inglewood’s high schools are run by principals who were not McKenna’s first choice, Rouzan said. The unions claim that the district’s financial problems--it is one of only three in the county to be assigned a fiscal overseer--can be traced in part to administrative overstaffing. The 16,000-student district has both a police chief and a security director and two people directing maintenance.

Such administrative layering, Rouzan said, is largely the result of the board’s refusal to fire anyone.

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“I think the difference between the board and George McKenna was that George was not afraid to say if someone was not doing their job and he wanted them removed,” Rouzan said. “And the board was . . . always looking for a way not to fire anybody.” Stanford’s Kirst says his studies show that job patronage is a troubling problem in urban districts, where unemployment is high. The district, Kirst said, becomes an economic development agency.

Reed hotly defends the board’s right to approve all hiring, firing and transfers, saying the state education code requires boards of education to approve every decision by a superintendent.

Rouzan, though, reluctantly agrees that Kirst’s findings highlight one of the most sensitive issues in Inglewood school politics. When Rouzan would ask board members who disliked McKenna what they were afraid he would do, their answer, Rouzan said, was always, “ ‘Well, he’s got his own people and he’ll try to put his own people in there.’ ”

One of those people is Yolanda Mendoza, who was recruited by McKenna to head Oak Street Elementary School and is the district’s only Latina principal. McKenna, she said, is “a visionary leader. He’s the person I want to take me into the year 2000.”

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Grading Inglewood Inglewood schools chief George J. McKenna was hired in 1988 to boost student performance on academic tests. Average 8th-grade CAP scores, which provide a snapshot of student performance, increased slightly in the district from 1986-87 to 1991-92, but still remained below state and county averages. Inglewood’s average increase over the period was at a rate below that of the state and county. The average is based on scores in five subjects.

Year Average % Change State 1986-87 252 1991-92 259 +2.7% County 1986-87 230 1991-92 236 +2.5% Inglewood 1986-87 201 1991-92 204 +1.5%

Declining Dropouts

The high school dropout rate in Inglewood has been declining, reflecting a trend statewide. The dropout rate is based on the percentage of students who started their sophomore year but did not complete high school.

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1991 1992 State 18.2% 16.6% County 26.1% 23.7% Inglewood 26.2% 18.5%

Source: State Department of Education


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