Juan Benitez

Juan Benitez, member of the Long Beach Unified School District board.

Megan Kerr resigned as vice president LBUSD’s Board of Education Wednesday night, Aug. 5, and then nominated panel member Juan Benitez to replace her — but he declined to accept the role, in a show of unity after weeks of controversy over the annual-and-normally-routine leadership change.

Instead, board member Jon Meyer, who will leave the panel once his term expires at the end of the year, will now serve as vice president.

Late last month, the school board for the Long Beach Unified School District held its yearly leadership reorganization. Traditionally, the leadership roles rotate, with the vice president getting appointed to the top spot and the next in line for the vice presidency getting appointed to that position.

Kerr kept with that tradition and nominated then Vice-President Benitez for president, but the motion failed and the board eventually elected Diana Craighead as president, with Kerr taking the no. 2 spot.

Controversy ensued.

Kerr criticized her board colleagues later that July 20 evening, in a Facebook post.

“I am deeply disappointed my colleagues did not support his (Juan Benitez’s) nomination and leadership,” Kerr wrote at the time. “I believe we must show our commitment to equity with our actions not just our words. We have a lot of work to do.”

Benitez is Latino.

A group of Latino leaders — including Mayor Robert Garcia, state Sen. Lena Gonzalez and City Council members Roberto Uranga and Mary Zendejas — also criticized the board’s decision, sending a letter to the district saying they were “incredibly disappointed and disheartened” with the vote.

Craighead, for her part, penned her own letter the following week in which she defended the board’s decision, saying her colleagues were motivated by ensuring a more experienced panelist serve as president during a time when the district faces dual challenges: the coronavirus pandemic and how to create more equitable policies amid a national civil rights movement.

Benitez, a Cal State Long Beach professor and executive director of the CSULB Center for Community Engagement, is serving his first term on the board.

Craighead that week also corrected the record on her own ethnicity, saying she identifies as Latinx and white.

The back-and-forth — including two of Benitez’s former election opponents, both of whom are Latino, responding to Craighead’s letter by saying their anger was about the dismissal of Benitez’s qualifications — set the stage for Wednesday.

Kerr confirmed her resignation from the vice presidency during the board meeting — she will remain on the panel — and nominated Benitez as her successor.

“As we focus on excellence and equity,” Kerr said, “and we work diligently to engage in our community during these really critical times, I nominate Dr. Benitez to serve as VP for the upcoming school year.”

The motion received a second from Craighead. But before the panel voted, Benitez declined the nomination.

“I appreciate it greatly,” Benitez said. “I have personal reasons for declining.

“We have a lot of building to do,” he added, noting that the panel has, at times, been divisive but that the district was in a critical moment. “We have three weeks before the start of the school year and there is a lot of racial divide, class divide, all kinds of divides in our community.”

Eventually, Felton Williams — who will leave the board at the end of the year — nominated Meyer.

“I’ll accept,” Meyer said, “if I have the support of my colleagues.”

And he did. The panel then confirmed him.

Benitez, for his part, also thanked those who provided public comments and emails supporting him, and urged folks to remain civically engaged. He also stressed the need for community-building.

“I’m encouraging folks to work together,” Benitez said. “I am reaffirming my commitment and whatever I can do using my voice, I’m committed to rebuilding. My declining is not a reflection that I’m not committed to working with this staff.

“I’m encouraging everyone to continue calling, emailing and submitting public comments if you can’t attend the meetings,” he added. “Those who support me, I need you to help me and our district to move forward.”

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