Juan Benitez

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

A decision to break with tradition and pass over the vice president of the Long Beach Unified School District’s board when it came time to choose a new leader has caused outrage among some city and community leaders.

The anger over the largely ceremonial vote for a new board president, which occurred earlier this week, is rooted partly in a larger conversation taking place locally and nationally over calls for racial equity; the person passed over was Juan Benitez, the board’s only Latino member.

Long Beach Unified students are 57% Latino.

Nearly 50 people, most from Long Beach’s Latino community, signed a letter that was sent to the LBUSD board on Friday, July 24, criticizing it for failing to move forward with a motion at its Monday meeting to choose Benitez, the vice president, as its new leader.

Mayor Robert Garcia, state Sen. Lena Gonzalez and City Council members Roberto Uranga and Mary Zendejas were among those who signed onto the letter. The signatories, the letter said, were “incredibly disappointed and disheartened” at the vote.

The letter noted that those who signed “expect a formal response.”

At the meeting, board member Megan Kerr moved to nominate Benitez as president, in keeping with the board’s tradition. None of her colleagues seconded the motion, so it failed; board member Diana Craighead was instead elected president for the next school year.

Kerr on Friday declined to comment on the letter, instead pointing to her remarks that night. Craighead and the remaining members of the board, including Benitez, did not respond to requests for comment.

“I am deeply disappointed my colleagues did not support his nomination and leadership,” Kerr said in a Monday evening Facebook post.

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

Her comments echoed the sentiments expressed in the letter itself.

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

“Latinx” is a relatively recent gender-neutral term preferred by many individuals and organizations compared to the gender-specific terms “Latino” and “Latina.”

The vote happened the same night the board decided to direct staff to create a district equity leadership team that would be tasked with making recommendations for new policies, practices, funding and initiatives to make the district more equitable.

But according to those who signed the letter, one step to ensure a more equitable LBUSD would be to empower the board’s only Latino member.

“We support our hardworking teachers and public schools,” the letter said. “Still, we can’t stand by as you marginalize Dr. Benitez and silence the Latinx voices in our Long Beach community.”

Load comments