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

October 08, 1993|MICHELE FUETSCH | 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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