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A Famed Reformer Resigns 

McKenna’s return to L.A. Unified lasts one year

Wednesday, Aug 1 2001
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Arturo Ybarra said the appearance of George McKenna III in Watts was like manna from the headquarters of Los Angeles Unified School District, a place hardly known for dispensing providence to his neighborhood. For years, Ybarra and his group, Parents and Students Organized, had been toiling to get the district‘s attention about decrepit schools, low test scores and high dropout rates -- not to mention principals and teachers who seemed unable or unwilling to turn things around. But when McKenna became superintendent last year of District I, among the toughest of the 11 minidistricts carved out within LAUSD, Ybarra felt a sea change. McKenna’s often controversial hands-on approach and penchant for close oversight was just what he was looking for. It also was what had already made McKenna equally famous and infamous in a storied career as a principal and administrator that began at an ailing Los Angeles high school in the late ‘70s.

From the community’s perspective, McKenna “was very receptive, he listened to us, to our complaints,” said Ybarra, who also heads the grassroots WattsCentury Latino Organization. “And then he shared with us his own plans for reform. We were amazed.”

But McKenna is out; he resigned this summer after his boss, L.A. Unified Superintendent Roy Romer, abruptly removed two of the five executive-level administrators, called directors, who served directly under McKenna in the chain of command. And while it is ostensibly encouraging that the district finally appears willing to replace administrators -- the school system is notorious for offering permanent employment to middle management regardless of competence -- critics complain that something other than overdue accountability is afoot. These observers say the move against McKenna‘s team has more to do with internal politics or, even worse, that McKenna was undone exactly because he pushed for the uncompromising standards to which district officials pay frequent lip service.

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A prominent theory is that United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), long McKenna’s nemesis, pressured Romer to force McKenna out. In its newsletter, the teachers union heatedly criticized the District I superintendent for imposing teacher-unfriendly rules -- regular, unannounced classroom visits by administrators, mandatory homework assignments and teacher dress codes, among other things.

In an interview, UTLA vice president Bev Cook said that the union put no overt pressure on the superintendent, but “Did we point out [McKenna‘s] faults to Romer? Yes.”

Citing employee confidentiality rights, Romer said only that McKenna’s deputies were bad for District I because of their “leadership styles” and that they “were barriers to progress.” At the same time, Romer praised McKenna personally and said he “preferred that he stay, and [I] value the work he has done.”

McKenna ran off a checklist of this work that has always been the core of his plan of action: a local teacher-recruitment fair -- finding good teachers has always been a problem in high-poverty schools; unannounced “instructional audits” -- to keep educators doing their best work at all times; release time to allow teachers to visit other classrooms. He defends the practices called into question by the teachers union; requiring lesson plans results in more effective teaching, he believes. As does making teachers assign homework every day. As for the dress code, McKenna said he merely insisted that teachers adhere to the same dress code that students must abide by, i.e., no earrings, no baggy pants, etc. “It‘s called modeling.”

He added, “I was on the verge of initiating standardized discipline codes, so that teachers would have a menu of things, responses to fall back on, so that principals would know to exhaust certain remedies before suspending a kid -- actions like parent conferences. Misbehaving alone is not a good reason to send a student home.”

McKenna had issued these sorts of policy edicts in previous administrative stints, stressing exacting and uniform approaches to old problems. “Principals were accepting all of this by and large,” said McKenna of his brief tenure in District I. “The problem is that UTLA and [the administrators union] are resistant to leadership.”

The teachers union sees it differently. An article in the union newsletter last fall -- just months into McKenna’s tenure -- alleged routine contract violations involving academic freedom, lesson plans, dress codes and teacher evaluations. The union has filed grievances on behalf of several teachers in District I, though it is not clear how many relate to McKenna‘s deputies, according to the union. UTLA president Day Higuchi called McKenna’s strictures “a collection of impractical, unworkable and harmful ideas,” adding that while teachers stood ready to work with the superintendent to achieve reforms, “We‘re also ready to defend our [union] members from mindless top-down oppression. Which one it will be is up to him.”

While McKenna maintains that he never had any formal conversations with Superintendent Romer about his deputies, he does recall Romer asking in passing, more than once, if he could handle the teachers union. “My response to that was, a ’Yeah, I‘m fine,’” said McKenna frostily. “‘I can handle them. Can you?’”

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