LBUSD board president responds to criticism over recent vote

Long Beach Unified School District’s newly nominated board president has responded to criticism from the local Latinx community over the body’s decision to pass over its only Latino-identifying member for the role.

In a letter obtained by the Long Beach Post late Monday afternoon, LBUSD school board President Diana Craighead addressed the 47 community leaders who signed on to the letter the board received Friday afternoon.

“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 said.

While Craighead is the third-most senior member with eight years on the board (twice as president), the two other most senior members are scheduled to retire in December.

Board member Jon Meyer has served for 17 years and Felton Williams has served for 16 years.

The Latinx leaders took issue with what they felt was the passing over of the newest board member, Juan Benitez, who was serving a term as vice president.

The group noted that it is tradition to rotate and nominate the current vice president to serve as president.

“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.

The group also highlighted the importance of Benitez’s voice to provide a “strong representation” in setting policy that affects students, many of whom are Latinx.

In her letter Monday, Craighead revealed her Mexican roots (it is unclear if she has ever publicly identified as Latinx) and said the  board is committed to “representing the interests of students of color.”

“My father, Henry Guzman, was a first generation American, and he raised me to be proud of our Mexican roots,” Craighead stated. “I am regarded by many people as a white person, and I understand the privilege that entails, but I also honor my Latinx heritage. My father’s experience and his guidance have shaped my passion for helping others, especially marginalized students.”

Benitez, who represents parts of Central Long Beach and Downtown, has been outspoken in recent months on the topic of race relation tensions and the pandemic’s effects on low-income communities and communities of color.

Meyer and Williams also released statements Monday afternoon clarifying that their decision to elect Craighead was based on experience.

Meyer, who made the motion to nominate Craighead, pointed to the “unique challenges that our district has never faced in its history,” including the pandemic, race relations tensions and serious economic shortfalls. He also pointed to the challenge of transitioning from a superintendent of 18 years to a new leader assuming her responsibilities next week.

Jill Baker is scheduled to start as LBUSD’s superintendent Aug. 1 after working for the district for nearly 28 years.

Williams, in an opinion piece published on the Long Beach Post Monday afternoon, praised Benitez’s “effectiveness as an advocate for students.”

“As he prepares to conclude his first full term as a member of the board, I’m most certain that the knowledge he is acquiring about the district and its culture will serve him well in the years to come,” Williams said.

Craighead, Meyer and Williams also brought up instances when the usual rotation of roles was not always the case.

Benitez did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a social media post published Saturday, he said he would continue to be a voice for all communities of color and the district’s most vulnerable students.

“These times require us to speak up even louder and more often, even when it is more difficult, even when we think we are not being heard, even if it is deemed as controversial, oppositional, disruptive, unorthodox, etc.,… we must make sure to continue to be heard and we can only achieve this collectively.”

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Stephanie Rivera is the community engagement editor 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.