L.A. Unified school board race turns negative, focuses on reputation

George McKenna, left, with retired Inglewood school board member Larry Aubry and county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, right, in 2013. McKenna is running against Alex Johnson to replace Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who died in December.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
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George McKenna has the sort of resume that would appear to make him a natural frontrunner in an important contest this month for the Los Angeles Board of Education. He has five decades of experience as a local educator, much of it in key leadership positions where he was responsible for some of the region’s lowest achieving schools.

But now that experience is being turned against him by a comparatively inexperienced challenger who is 40 years his junior.

With recent attacks on McKenna’s reputation, the campaign of Alex Johnson and some of his backers has distracted attention from a contest that offers voters, on Aug. 12, a clear contrast between the two candidates with different backgrounds and alliances. They are vying for the seat left vacant by the death of Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte.


The winner is likely to cast pivotal votes on a divided school board, affecting such district policies as how teachers are evaluated, and how large a pay raise they will receive; whether charter schools will have a champion, and whether aggressive schools Supt. John Deasy will have free rein in these and other matters.

The negative turn of the Johnson campaign has troubled former U.S. Rep. Diane Watson.

“I support Alex, but I sent his campaign a cease-and-desist using my name on their literature,” she said in a recent interview. “George is a good friend and this is a disservice.”

Johnson’s campaign said the candidate later called Watson to clarify that he had never used her endorsement in a negative mailer and would not do so. Watson’s name has continued to appear in other mailers.

Attacking McKenna’s reputation has been part of a strategy to overcome a distant second-place finish for Johnson in the June primary.

His alliances with charter schools, with Deasy supporters and with L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas have resulted in a campaign spending edge for Johnson that surpasses $1.1 million — compared to $359,000 of spending on behalf of McKenna. McKenna backers include the unions for teachers and administrators.

Aside from touting Johnson’s virtues, the money has been used in campaign literature to paint McKenna, 73, as an unmitigated disaster since he won acclaim as a principal 30 years ago. Mailers say McKenna has been responsible for child molesters preying on children and for covering up their deeds; plummeting academic performance; fiscal irresponsibility, and various other scandals.


They use a 1986 TV movie that dramatized his work as principal of Washington Preparatory High School in South L.A against him. “The REAL **George McKenna Story doesn’t have a Hollywood ending,” began one piece of mail.

McKenna said he has no issue running on his record, calling the attacks “a hurtful thing in a personal way.” Speaking of Johnson, he said: “Do you pull somebody else down when you’re trying to save yourself?”

Over his 10 years as principal at Washington Prep enrollment, attendance, the number of graduates, college attendance and advanced course work improved significantly.

Then, in 1988, McKenna made the rare leap from principal to superintendent — heading Inglewood Unified, a mid-sized, low-performing urban school system. He could not replicate the success he had as a principal.

Former Inglewood school board member Larry Aubry, a supporter, said McKenna ran into resistance for demanding better performance from teachers, senior staff and school board members.

McKenna’s critics, including Inglewood teacher union leaders, characterized him, at the time, as arrogant and ineffective.


In 1993, a split school board decided not to renew his contract.

McKenna moved on to a senior post at Compton Unified. He worked under a state-appointed administrator after the Legislature removed the district’s local control because of insolvency and academic failure. Test scores improved incrementally.

A Johnson flier blames McKenna for inflating graduation rates in Compton, among other things.

McKenna’s actual role was to correct inflated rates, said former state administrator Randolph Ward, who now heads the San Diego County Office of Education.

The mailer also says “McKenna was sued by parents for ordering teachers to falsify their students’ grades.”

That characterization also is misleading, Ward said. At the time, the district was trying to end grade inflation and to halt the practice of moving students to the next grade level even if they lacked necessary academic skills. The district experimented with making some standardized tests count for a portion of a student’s grade, and with adjusting grades downward to reflect what students knew. Twice parents sued over these controversial efforts.

Pro-Johnson fliers also suggest McKenna was responsible for lewd conduct by a teacher at Miramonte Elementary, in what became the largest child-abuse case ever in L.A. Unified. McKenna was a top regional administrator.


Former L.A. schools Supt. Ramon Cortines said it’s unfair to blame McKenna for not uncovering the Miramonte abuse because no complaints about the teacher were reported up the chain of command during McKenna’s tenure.

Johnson defended the claims made by his campaign and said, “George McKenna is running on his Hollywood movie story. But voters know that a Hollywood story is not the same thing as the truth.”

Associates describe Johnson as an intelligent, capable aide, handling education and public safety issues for Ridley-Thomas.

Within county government Johnson pushed for grant funding that paid for gang-intervention workers to help students travel safely to and from a school in the Florence-Firestone area. Johnson later helped ensure such efforts were unimpeded by bureaucracy, said Fernando Rejón, a deputy director at the Advancement Project, a nonprofit involved in anti-gang efforts.

A product of L.A. schools, Johnson graduated from Morehouse College and law school at American University.

He then worked for three years as an entry-level prosecutor in the Bronx, generally working on domestic violence cases that did not go to trial. From 2008 to 2010, he was an attorney with the Teacher Performance Unit in New York City whose central role is to pursue dismissal cases against teachers accused of misconduct or ineffectiveness.

Twitter: @howardblume