By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Rousseau has ties not only to Hayes but to McKenna as well: She was his assistant principal at Washington High for many years. Though Hayes says she was not privy to Romer‘s decision about the deputies, one state legislator confirms he got a heads-up call from Hayes, presumably to lessen the political fallout within the African-American community. “The basis of the call was, ’George might not like this,‘” recalled state Senator Kevin Murray.
Yet according to Hayes, Romer “doesn’t have to consult with me, or with anybody. He doesn‘t have to ask my permission.” While she called McKenna “one of those people who have been most articulate about problems facing inner-city schools,” she also critiqued his confrontational style, saying, “There was a certain amount of inflexibility about George.” She asserts that UTLA’s antagonism had nothing to do with his exit, instead placing responsibility for that on McKenna himself. “George didn‘t take the time and care he could have taken with this issue,” said Hayes. “He’s the best guy for the job. In the end, this is a loss to those kids in South-Central.”
In other words, McKenna had no business jumping ship over the loss of the deputies. (One of them was offered a transfer. The other‘s contract was simply not renewed.) Hayes said the district had gotten complaints that these administrators were heavy-handed and imperious, but to McKenna, the removal of his aides was nothing less than an attack on him, one small step removed. These administrators, in particular, were the most forward extension of McKenna’s policies in the classroom; one of their chief duties was to conduct the surprise “educational audits.” These audits included visits to classrooms to see how closely teachers were following McKenna‘s dictates, so it is hardly surprising that these administrators would merit the particular displeasure of the teachers union. It’s no wonder that McKenna would see his deputies‘ removal as a personal repudiation that called into question whether he would ever receive the autonomy that was promised the new regional superintendents.
McKenna himself said he is “shocked and stunned” by what he essentially feels was a forced resignation, a trap in which he all too willingly took the bait. “But I’m not surprised,” he added. “I didn‘t think I’d be satisfactory to everybody. Now I‘m being removed from any effort to emancipate these kids.”
Such clipped but dramatic analyses are typical of the 60-year-old McKenna. For years, he was one of the few personalities in the dronish world of L.A. inner-city public schools, an outspoken educator who gained national recognition and even brief Hollywood fame as a high school principal in a television movie, starring Denzel Washington, made about his life, his reformist passion and the hardball tactics that jump-started troubled Washington High, a South Los Angeles campus, in the early ’70s. McKenna‘s intellectual rigor and commitment, as well as his abrasiveness and occasional extremism, prompted an exodus of Washington High teachers and earned the wrath of the teachers union. Some of the departed, many of whom were white, called it a purge, but McKenna characterized it differently: “The teachers all left voluntarily from Washington . . . I established standards; they refused to respond to them.”
McKenna later served as superintendent of the Inglewood Unified School District, from 1988 to 1994, departing with mixed reviews after local elections replaced the school-board majority that had hired him. He then served as deputy superintendent of the Compton schools, working as part of the state-appointed administration that stepped in as part of an academic and financial bailout.
McKenna reached a career pinnacle when he was named by interim Los Angeles Superintendent Ramon Cortines to head District I; its 62 schools spanned South-Central, South Los Angeles and Watts, and promised to be one of the most difficult of the 11 LAUSD regions to overhaul. Tim Watkins, CEO and president of the Watts Community Labor Action Committee, believes McKenna’s untimely departure will make things that much more difficult. “I‘ve been a resident here for 48 years. I’ve been subject to so much neglect that I looked forward to this new alliance and meaningful solutions,” he said. “George actually joined community groups. We were seeing the results of a new literacy. We were getting new supplies. Now it‘s all gone.”
A group of about 10 concerned citizens met with Romer last week. The group included Ybarra, civil rights activist and businessman Danny Bakewell, and the Rev. Cecil Murray of the First AME Church. Both sides say that the superintendent, while willing to listen to community concerns, remains adamant about his decision. McKenna is technically on paid administrative leave from his $150,000-a-year job through next June, when his two-year contract expires.
New Superintendent Rousseau, like McKenna, came back to L.A. Unified after an extended absence to join the “reform” team. In her initial role, as an assistant superintendent of secondary instruction, she was an architect of the incipient black-student achievement initiative. McKenna supporters worry about Rousseau’s appointment for rather opposing reasons: Some worry that she lacks McKenna‘s considerable experience as superintendent; others that Rousseau will be leaving the districtwide black-student initiative in uncertain hands at a very critical juncture. “Neither move is good for black students and low-achieving students generally,” remarked Owen Knox, a retired member of the school district’s Council of Black Administrators.