The LA Podcast
< LAUSD Board of Education

George McKenna

1st District

Name: Dr. George McKenna III

DOB: September 6, 1940

Took Office: 2014 in a special election, then ran unopposed in 2015 (Currently on 1st term of 3 possible)

Who does he represent?
District 1 is shaped like a seahorse facing west. The seahorse’s nose is Palms. Moving east to the seahorse head is Mid-Wilshire, then heading south across the 10 is the torso (on a seahorse it’s called a “trunk”) of West Adams, Jefferson Park, Baldwin Hills, Leimert Park, Hyde Park, and neighborhoods around USC. Finally, you continue south to the tail with the 110 acting as a spine, through Vermont-Slauson, Canterbury Knolls, Westmont, and down to West Athens terminating at Gardena. The tail part includes Washington Prep, the high school where McKenna was principal in the 80s, as documented in the 1986 TV movie “The George McKenna Story,” where he was played by Denzel Washington.

Where’s he from?
Dr. McKenna was born and raised in New Orleans. He studied math at Xavier and Loyola, then got his education doctorate at Xavier.

How did he get here?
McKenna accepted a teaching job in LAUSD at age 22 and hasn’t left town since. He taught at the high school and college levels before getting a principal job at beleaguered George Washington Preparatory High School in Westmont. McKenna was said to have “turned around” the failing school, and made national headlines for increasing the graduation rate and getting kids into STEM courses. Did we mention he was played by Denzel Washington in a TV movie? Every article about George McKenna has to include that he was played by Denzel Washington in a TV movie. 

McKenna later served as the superintendent of Inglewood schools, until the district was assigned fiscal overseers by the state due to financial troubles. McKenna bounced to Compton Unified, then Pasadena Unified, before working as an administrator at LAUSD and running for a board seat after the death of Marguerite Poindexter Lamotte. He defeated Alex Johnson, a young aide to Mark Ridley-Thomas, with the help of the teachers union, despite Johnson’s campaign outspending his 3-1.

What does he care about?
Though McKenna was at odds with teachers unions in previous jobs (the union was one of his harshest critics when he ran the Inglewood schools), he’s seen as a labor-friendly member of the school board, and has lined up with UTLA for many recent decisions. He voted against Austin Beutner’s appointment to school board, quietly appeared to favor a teacher-friendly settlement during recent strike negotiations, pushed for Jackie Goldberg to be named as an interim board member after Ref Rodriguez’s resignation, and voted for the recent charter moratorium. One decision where he recently broke ranks with the union, however, was the board’s 4-3 vote to end random student searches: McKenna voted to continue them.

Since his time at Washington Prep (adapted into a TV movie where he was played by Denzel Washington), McKenna’s been an outspoken voice in favor of spending money to improve opportunities for black students, especially in STEM. He’s also fought funding cuts throughout his career, like when Governor Schwarzenegger attempted to slash state education budgets by $4.8 billion.

Based on his profile as one of the most famous school principals in the country (he was played by Denzel Washington in a TV movie), it’s safe to say that McKenna cares at least a little about publicity. He’s parlayed his education career into plenty of keynote speaking opportunities, but as Inglewood superintendent, he was criticized as too much of a “global thinker,” and less interested in solving the provincial issues of his district.

Why are we talking about him?
Despite his fame (Denzel Washington, TV movie), Dr. McKenna hasn’t made too many individual headlines since taking office in 2014. He’s mostly notable for being a faithful vote for UTLA on the board. His reelection campaign in 2020 is likely to make more news, but nobody has emerged to run against him yet. 

Also, he was played by Denzel Washington in a TV movie.