As the Inglewood school board begins searching for a replacement for Supt. Rex Fortune, school and community leaders say the financially troubled, politically charged district will need an administrator who is both charismatic and tough.
One name that has surfaced frequently is that of George McKenna, principal of Washington Preparatory School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. His efforts in inner-city education have gained national attention, including a television movie, "The George McKenna Story."
McKenna said that he had not been approached about the job but has received several calls from people "asking and speculating" about whether he would be a candidate. He said he would consider the position if he received an offer, but expressed reservations.
Fortune announced his resignation at Monday's board meeting, effective July 1.
School officials and candidates in a June 7 special election to fill a board vacancy said that whoever succeeds Fortune will have to deal with political conflicts on the board and confront the district's financial crisis.
Jerry Norman, assistant superintendent for business services, who also resigned at Monday's meeting, said next year's budget deficit could exceed $3 million. Norman has been planning for some time to go into business on his own, but the board may decide to keep him as a consultant, officials said.
The search for a new superintendent may be hampered by two vacancies on the five-member board. One vacancy will be filled in the June election and the other in the November election.
"The question is, who can we get to come to a board that has vacancies?" board member Caroline Coleman said after Monday's meeting, alluding to the fact that the new superintendent could not count on the support of the new members.
"It's a tenuous situation to come into," she said. "Fortunately, we'll have one of those seats filled in June."
Coleman said the district will need a leader with a strong background in business to tackle its financial problems. She was among several officials who spoke highly of McKenna.
One reason why McKenna's name has spread quickly through the "district rumor mill," as one observer called it, is that he was previously offered the Inglewood superintendency in 1985, after a three-member board majority fired Fortune. At the time, Fortune and others said he had been fired for resisting efforts by the majority to fill jobs with their allies. Fortune was reinstated after a community uproar.
McKenna declined the 1985 offer, saying political conflict on the board would have to subside before he would consider the post.
In a telephone interview, McKenna said he had not been offered the job. But he did say numerous people in Inglewood had called him and discussed it.
"I'm comfortable being principal of Washington," McKenna said. "I've been offered other superintendencies in other cities and declined. If the Inglewood job is available, I would consider it. But I feel good about what I'm doing now."
McKenna, who lives in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles, said he had an "affinity" for Inglewood and is not intimidated by the challenges the job would pose. But he also said he would be reluctant to take a position in a district with a divided board.
The district has about 15,500 students, most of them black and Latino, and about 1,800 employees. Fortune's current salary is $68,318.
Fortune will be accepting a job as superintendent of the Central Unified School District in North Highlands, an unincorporated area of Sacramento County.
In an interview, Fortune said he chose to leave Inglewood partly because his position remained uncertain due to divisions on the board and the two vacancies. But he took issue with any suggestion that the district is in disarray. He called some observers' assertion that he was overwhelmed by Inglewood's political brawls "an overstatement."
'Variety of Improvements'
"The past five years have been characterized by a variety of improvements," Fortune said.
He cited the district's University and College Opportunities program to prepare students for college, numerous anti-drug and anti-gang programs carried out with the help of the city government, student achievements in athletics and sciences and efforts to modernize and expand the school system.
Conflicts among board members and outside political influences hounded Fortune throughout much of his tenure. The board was controlled from 1985 to 1987 by a three-member majority that critics accused of attempting to turn the district into a political patronage pool for Mayor Edward Vincent. Vincent and the three board members steadfastly denied those charges.
Assemblyman Curtis Tucker (D-Inglewood) and Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) have also backed candidates in school board races and maintained ties to board members.