McKenna wins key L.A. school board seat, according to unofficial results

L.A. school board candidate George McKenna makes a New Orleans-style entrance to an election night party in the Crenshaw District.
(Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times)

Veteran school administrator George McKenna won his bid for a key seat on the Los Angeles Board of Education besting political newcomer Alex Johnson, according to unofficial results released Tuesday night.

With all precincts reporting, McKenna claimed just over 53% of the vote in the special runoff election that coincided with the first day of school in Los Angeles.

Provisional ballots must still be counted, but Johnson would have to make up a difference of nearly 2,000 votes in a low-turnout election in which fewer than one in 10 voters took part.

McKenna attributed his victory to hard-working supporters and to his own investment of a 50-year career in local education.


“That investment has paid off,” he said.

Now, he said, it was up to him to reward the faith that voters showed. “I feel so privileged to have earned the trust and confidence of District 1 voters to be their school board representative.”

“I have never accepted an easy assignment in my career, yet I have always improved the educational outcomes of children. I will draw on the best of my experience, assemble an able team of advisors, and work in partnership with parents, teachers and the community to pursue excellence in our schools.”

In an interview just before the final tally, Johnson said the contest was “extremely close.”

“We ran an extremely competitive race and stood tall. I will certainly not fade into the background. I will continue to be a presence in the community and someone who pushes for change. This is my home. This is my community.”

The two candidates presented clearly contrasting backgrounds and allies as they vied to join the seven-member school board, filling the position left vacant by the death in December of Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte.

The hard-fought campaign also divided community leaders and featured controversial allegations against McKenna, who finished a strong first in a field of seven in the June primary.

Against this backdrop, the issues at stake for students should not be overlooked, said Sylvia Rousseau, a veteran educator and USC professor who has filled in as a caretaker since March for this board district, which stretches across south and southwest Los Angeles.

Its 92 campuses are located in some of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods and are some of the district’s lowest performing. In addition, there are 37 charter campuses that are publicly funded but independently run and are sometimes a point of contention on the school board.

“This race should bring to light some long-standing issues that people have had about equity and about how we structure schools so that children of color and children of the poor and of different languages have equitable opportunity to learn,” said Rousseau.

The winner is likely to cast pivotal votes on such issues as how teachers are evaluated and how large a pay raise they will receive, and whether L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy has the board support to pursue his vision of reform on these and other matters.

McKenna, 73, entered the contest with strong and generally positive name recognition based on five decades of experience in local school systems.

He achieved national acclaim for his decade-long tenure as principal at Washington Preparatory High School in South L.A. before becoming superintendent of the nearby Inglewood Unified School District for six years. He then held senior posts in Compton Unified, Pasadena Unified and L.A. Unified. These districts made incremental progress, but nothing like the success he’d had as a school principal.

Over the last four years, Johnson, 34, has been an aide to L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, focusing on education and safety issues.

Before that, the L.A. native worked as an attorney in the New York public school system for two years. He also served as an entry-level prosecutor for three years in the Bronx.

To offset McKenna’s advantage of experience and personal connections, Johnson forged key alliances.

Several major political action committees backed Johnson, including one for charter schools; a second with ties to Ridley-Thomas; a third that drew on connections with civic leaders in support of Deasy; and a fourth funded by Local 99 of Services Employees International, which represents most low-wage, non-teaching district employees. Johnson had pledged unequivocal support of their salary demands in contract negotiations.

The committees spent more than $850,000 on Johnson’s behalf. His campaign spent more than $610,000.

Some of this money was used in mailers that attempted to turn McKenna’s experience against him. Pro-Johnson literature suggested that McKenna was responsible, as a senior district administrator, for the lewd conduct by a teacher against children at Miramonte Elementary School and for covering up or destroying evidence in other abuse cases.

“You always regret when things get negative,” said Rousseau, who did not take sides. “Hopefully there will be healing from that.”

The allegations infuriated McKenna, who blamed Ridley-Thomas, an old friend, as much as Johnson, for making them.

The teachers union threw resources behind McKenna — more than $180,000. He also relied on his own fundraising, spending about $322,000, according to filings reported as of Election

The campaign divided much of the African American community, which has been a decisive voting bloc in District 1 for decades.

About 45% of the district voters are black, according to analyses based on the census. About 62% of students are Latino, while about 28% are black.

Other constituencies also were at play. The district contains a large number of white voters, who, if they mobilized, could prove decisive. The same goes for charter school parents.

Ridley-Thomas, whose supervisorial territory overlaps much of the area, is widely considered the most powerful local political figure.

Many longtime Ridley-Thomas allies — including current U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn, former Rep. Diane Watson and L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson — lined up behind Johnson.

The supervisor’s frequent political nemesis has been U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who supported McKenna.

McKenna’s loyalists also included community leaders with whom he has personal, long-standing ties.

Among his supporters: the Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and L.A. City Councilman Bernard C. Parks.

Current L.A. school board members split: McKenna won the backing of Steve Zimmer, Bennett Kayser and Monica Ratliff. Johnson was endorsed by Monica Garcia and Tamar Galatzan. Board president Richard Vladovic remained neutral. So did Deasy, even though many of his most ardent supporters sided with Johnson.

McKenna will serve the remaining 10 months of LaMotte’s term. The campaign for the next, full, four-year term is expected to begin almost immediately.

Twitter: @howardblume