In a letter to the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) Board of Education dated July 23, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia along with several city councilmembers, parents and state officials, educators and community activists, demanded a formal response as to why Dr. Juan Benitez– the only Latino board member– was passed over to serve as board president.
“It is important our Latinx community has strong representation and a voice in setting policy that affects our students, many of whom are Latinx,” the letter states. Hispanic students comprise 57% of LBUSD’s 72,000 students, or about 41,000 pupils, according to its website.
During its July 20 meeting, the board voted for Diana Craighead– a white woman representing District 5– as board president for the 2020-2021 school year instead of Benitez, who represents District 3.
The protest letter states that Benitez has been serving as board vice-president and would therefore have been next up to serve as president, per the board’s traditional rotation schedule.
Craighead told the Signal Tribune in a July 27 email that it would not be appropriate for her to comment on the situation until the board’s response has been submitted. She did not immediately say when that might be.
The letter further describes Benitez as a Cal State Long Beach scholar and historian and a leader on racial equity and justice issues.
“During his tenure on the Board of Education, he has lifted the voices and experiences of students of color and low-income parents,” the letter states. “Passing over Dr. Benitez is unacceptable and disrespectful, not only to a sitting elected member, but to the entire Latinx community.”
The letter also contends that COVID-19 has exposed weaknesses in Long Beach’s education infrastructure that especially cause challenges for Latinx students due to the digital divide, economic crisis, immigration statuses and housing and food insecurities.
“We can’t stand by as you marginalize Dr. Benitez and silence Latinx voices in our Long Beach community,” the letter asserts.
Two of the letter’s signers– Eduardo Lara, a sociology lecturer at Cal State Long Beach, and Cesar Armendariz, a Long Beach community activist– sent an addendum letter dated July 22 to Craighead and other board members further questioning its decision, especially in light of the board adopting an Equity Policy just before its reorganization.
.@LongBeachPost, this addendum written by .@LongBeachCesar and I, should’ve been part of the letter submitted by mayor .@RobertGarciaLB to #LBUSD School Board re: .@DrJuanMBenitez. offers context and solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter #LongBeach. pic.twitter.com/9aE7QZjIMF
— Dr. Eduardo Lara (@DrEduardoLara) July 25, 2020
“At a time when both the Board and District need to be building bridges with community, including Black-Latinx solidarity, how is failing to elect Dr. Benitez as president equity?” Lara and Armendariz ask.
They contend that the board retaliated against Benitez for actively engaging students and parents and giving them a “platform to voice their grievances with the district” in a July 8 virtual Long Beach Schools Community Forum on dismantling institutional racism attended by over 600 participants.
“What emerged from the forum were multiple testimonies on how the district is failing to equitably educate Black children,” Lara and Armendariz say. “[Benitez] is doing his job as an elected official– meeting with stakeholders and bringing them into the fold in meaningful ways to help guide key decisions on how best to educate students.”
Black children account for 12% of the student population, or about 8,600 students, according to LBUSD’s website.
After hearing extensive commentary during its July 20 meeting in support of doing more to support Black students, the board voted unanimously to adopt an Equity Policy, allowing it to create an equity-leadership team to guide future policies and practices.
Benitez commented after the vote that the policy would help dismantle institutional racism through concrete budgeting.
“Equity is not just a word that we use or a mantra that we share,” Benitez said. “We take action through policies, through initiatives, through practices.”
Following the vote to adopt a new Equity Policy, the board conducted its annual reorganization, beginning with choosing a new president to replace Dr. Felton Williams, the only Black board member, who is retiring later this year.
District 1 representative and incoming vice-president Megan Kerr nominated Benitez, who had been serving as vice president, saying his skillset would facilitate partnering with the community in new ways.
“Dr. Benitez’s experience speaks directly to that work,” Kerr said.
Kerr also said she admires that the board doesn’t allow “personal issues” to interfere with focusing on students and families, especially during and after the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“I firmly believe that we can do these hard things when we work together as a governance team,” she said. “I hope Dr. Benitez commits to do doing this work in cooperation with the board to fully support our new superintendent [Jill Baker] and executive staff […] and believe he deserves a chance to do that.”
However, no other board member seconded Kerr’s motion so Benitez’s nomination could not be put to a vote.
District 4 board-member Jon Meyer subsequently nominated Craighead, saying she has the most board experience following his and William’s retirement in December.
Craighead has served on the board for eight years, since 2012.
“I think she is well positioned to be our board president during this next challenging year,” Meyer said.
Meyer’s motion was seconded by Williams. Benitez then nominated Kerr, also for her experience, but the motion failed without a second. Kerr has served for six years.
Craighead accepted her nomination and the board unanimously approved her as president. It then approved Kerr as vice president, following her nomination by Williams, with a second by Benitez.
Kerr later told the Signal Tribune that she stands by reactions she posted on her Facebook page the night of the July 20 meeting, in which she expresses regret that her motion for Benitez was not seconded.
“I am deeply disappointed my colleagues did not support his nomination and leadership,” Kerr said. “I believe we must show our commitment to equity with our actions, not just our words. We have a lot of work to do.”