Long Beach Unified Board District (LBUSD) incoming Board of Education President Diana Craighead penned a July 28 letter replying to criticism by Mayor Robert Garcia and others, holding that the board acted appropriately in appointing her as its new president because of her experience.
In their July 23 protest letter, Garcia and nearly 50 other Long Beach leaders and education stakeholders had condemned the board’s July 20 decision, saying that Dr. Juan Benitez– the only Latino board member who had been serving as vice president– should have been the next appointed president according to the board’s traditional rotation schedule.
Furthermore, since 57% of LBUSD’s 72,000 students are Latinx, Benitez would be a more fitting president, the letter contends.
“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 stated. “Passing over Dr. Benitez is unacceptable and disrespectful, not only to a sitting elected member, but to the entire Latinx community.”
In her response– which she released to the Signal Tribune on July 29– Craighead said that following the upcoming December retirements of Jon Meyer and Felton Williams– who have served on the board for 17 years and 16 years, respectively– she is the member with the most experience.
Craighead has served for eight years– twice as president– compared to Benitez’s two years of experience, she said. Craighead was elected to the board in 2012, Benitez in 2018.
“Given the extraordinary times that we face due to the global coronavirus pandemic and related challenges of reopening schools, the school board voted to select a president who will have the most experience leading the board,” Craighead stated.
She also noted that the board’s decision was unanimous. Though Megan Kerr– now the board’s vice president– had nominated Benitez as president during the appointment process, her motion was not seconded and therefore not put to a vote.
Meyer then nominated Craighead, a motion seconded by Williams. Craighead accepted the nomination and the board voted 5-0 in favor of Craighead.
“My colleagues unanimously selected me as president, and they chose colleague Megan Kerr as vice president,” Craighead said in her letter. “I thank all of my board colleagues, including Dr. Benitez, for their vote of confidence.”
Craighead also said that there have been other times in the past when the board has not appointed the vice president to be subsequently president.
And though the protest letter said Benitez is the sole Latino board member, Craighead responded that her father, Henry Guzman, was a first-generation American.
“He raised me to be proud of our Mexican roots,” Craighead said. “I am regarded by many people as a white person, and I understand the privilege that entails, but I also honor my Latinx heritage.”
Her father shaped her passion to help others, especially marginalized students, Craighead said.
“The Board of Education is especially committed to representing the interests of students of color,” Craighead said. “We are keenly aware of, and we highly value, the demographic make-up of our student population.”
Craighead added that she values Benitez’s contribution.
“Dr. Benitez has served for two years on the school board, and he will continue to be an important voice and a vote in our policy decisions in the coming months,” she said.
Meyer also defended his nomination of Craighead and the board’s decision in a July 29 opinion piece for the Long Beach Post.
Like Craighead, Meyer also stated that vice presidents do not always then become presidents.
“Last year, for example, when I was vice president, it was potentially my turn to become president,” Meyer said. “I chose to step aside so that Felton Williams could become president of our board, and Benitez could become vice president.”
In addition to noting how he and Williams– the two most experienced board members– will soon step down, Meyer said Chris Steinhauser will also be leaving after 18 years of experience as superintendent, adding to the need for experience. Steinhauser’s replacement, Dr. Jill Baker, officially takes over Aug. 1.
Meyer also noted the extra need for “experience and stability” at this time.
“There are challenges of opening a school year in the face of COVID-19 dangers, race relations tensions and serious economic shortfalls,” Meyer said.
He hopes the Latinx community accepts his word that he based his nomination on Craighead’s experience, Meyers said.
“Benitez, who has completed his second year on the board, continues to provide important perspective and leadership,” he said.
Williams also defended seconding Meyer’s motion to nominate Craighead as president, saying bypassing Benitez was not a race issue in a July 28 Long Beach Post opinion.
Williams echoed Meyer’s points that vice presidents are not always appointed as president and that he values Craighead’s experience during these challenging times.
Williams added that Benitez will continue to support students as a board member as its most recent member. Benitez was elected in June 2018.
“His effectiveness as an advocate for students is not diminished in any way,” Williams said of Benitez. “He will always have an opportunity to be considered for the role of president as long as he is a member of the board.”
In his own response posted July 25 on his Facebook page in both English and Spanish, Benitez said he would not speculate on the motives of his colleagues Craighead, Meyer and Williams.
“I will continue to be a voice for Black communities, Latinx communities, Cambodian communities, all of our communities of color, and our most vulnerable students and families,” Benitez said. “As long as I’m on the school board.”