‘Disappointed and disheartened’: Mayor, state senator and others sign letter criticizing school board for passing over its only Latino member as president

A letter criticizing the Long Beach Unified School District’s Board of Education for passing over its only Latino board member as president of a school district that is over half Latinx was signed and delivered today by about four dozen elected and community leaders, including Mayor Robert Garcia and state Sen. Lena Gonzalez.

“We are incredibly disappointed and disheartened that Dr. Juan Benitez was passed over to serve as President of the LBUSD Board of Education,” the group stated in the letter.

The group noted that it is tradition to rotate and nominate the current vice president to serve as president, but during Monday night’s board meeting, Benitez’s nomination by fellow board member Megan Kerr did not receive a second motion and therefore no vote was taken. Instead, Diana Craighead, who represents an area of the district that is more suburban and White, was elected president and Megan Kerr elected vice president for the 2020-21 school year, both by unanimous vote.

Kerr also criticized her colleagues that night, stating on social media that she was “deeply disappointed” that they did not support his nomination and leadership.

“I believe we must show our commitment to equity with our actions, not just our words. We have a lot of work to do,” Kerr posted online.

Benitez said the school board was made aware of the letter late Friday afternoon.

“I appreciate the confidence many community stakeholders, including our Mayor Robert Garcia and State Senator Lena Gonzalez have in me and their expressed concerns about the Board majority’s recent vote for president,” Benitez said in an emailed quote. “I think the community and elected leaders deserve an answer.”

Benitez declined to speculate as to why his colleagues did not support his nomination, instead saying he will continue serving in his capacity as steward for the families in the school district.

“I will continue to be a voice for Latinx communities, Black communities, communities of color and our most vulnerable students and families as long as I’m on the school board,” Benitez said.

Benitez became the first Latino school board member in over two decades when he was elected in 2018 to serve the state’s third largest school district and the city’s largest employer. Latinx students make up nearly 60% of the population in a city that is 43% Latinx.

Benitez is a professor of Chicano/Latino studies at Cal State Long Beach and serves as executive director of the CSULB Center for Community Engagement.

“Passing over Dr. Benitez is unacceptable and disrespectful, not only to a sitting elected member, but to the entire Long Beach Latinx community,” the letter stated in part.

Benitez has been a vocal member of the board in addressing the needs of marginalized students, including low-income students and students of color, during the coronavirus pandemic. He has also been critical of the new raise his colleagues approved, amid a looming recession, for incoming LBUSD superintendent Jill Baker.

The board’s only other member of color, Felton Williams who is Black, is set to retire later this year.

Read the full text of the letter below.

Benitez_Letter

 

A second letter cosigned by local educators Dr. Eduardo Lara and Cesar Armendariz echoed the concerns expressed in the letter Garcia and Gonzalez cosigned.

“This same meeting moved forward work on an Equity Policy yet failed to make history on electing the first Latino president of the School Board,” Lara and Armendariz stated in their letter.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the second letter, cosigned by Dr. Eduardo Lara and Cesar Armendariz.

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Stephanie Rivera is the immigration and diversity reporter for the Long Beach Post. After graduating from CSULB with a degree in journalism, Stephanie worked for Patch Latino and City News Service before coming to the Long Beach Post in 2015.
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