A trio of items at the 11/26 Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) Board meeting brought some half-buried tensions to the surface. Two items involved bylaw revisions, while one introduced a new Censure and Procedures bylaw. And Board Member Michael Tsai expressed his disapproval at each one of them.
The first item involved Board Bylaw 9001, which had to do with a revision to Board Group Agreements. One revision specified that Trustees should have no “unapproved communication with law enforcement, news media, regional elected officials on behalf of the District and/or Board.”
Tsai, who was absent from the 11/12 Study Session at which these revisions were worked on and discussed, expressed his disapproval of the item from the get-go…
“My concern with this is it’s going to get interpreted or construed in a way that will possibly compromise the First Amendment where people have the right to free speech,” said Tsai.
Superintendent Cheryl Jordan explained that a Board Member could speak as an individual, which wouldn’t eliminate one’s freedom of speech; she clarified that the revision meant that no official could speak on behalf of MUSD or the Board.
Tsai proceeded to ask for examples, which led to discussion of an incident involving law enforcement — and Tsai himself — just a couple months ago.
“For example, when we had a lockdown, there was a Board Member that posted on social media that the district office was in lockdown. And that should have come from district personnel,” said Superintendent Jordan. “And the normal operations between district and police is that any communication regarding police action is discussed between the Superintendent and Chief of Police, or the Chief of Police Designee…and approved by the law enforcement agency, before posting on social media. And in this case, the Board Member bypassed that normal practice and posted.”
She was referring to October 8, when after an incident involving a person stabbing someone on the corner of North Temple Dr. and East Calaveras Blvd., Tsai wrote a post on his Facebook Trustee page that read in part:
“Community alert: Burnett Elementary and Ayer site (Cal Hills) are currently on lockdown while police secure the area.”
Minutes after that, he wrote, also on Facebook: “I am currently considering postponing or cancelling tonight’s school board meeting as I do not want a crowd walking into a lockdown and creating a safety issue…”
Marsha Grilli, a former MUSD Board Member and President, responded to Tsai’s post, reminding him that “board members have no authority to cancel meetings.”
At the 11/26 meeting, the Superintendent made it clear that Tsai had breached normal protocol when he took it upon himself to speak to law enforcement and communicate to the public about the matter.
Tsai seemingly struggled to explain himself to the Board, stating that he had received “some authorization from police staff,” and that he’d also heard that people are concerned with lack of communication from the district and that “the more people working on communication, the better.”
Two people got up to make Public Comments, saying that they disagreed with Tsai and that he needed to stick to regular protocol.
Another piece of the revision to Board Bylaw 9001 that Tsai expressed his disapproval of was a new line that read:
Be on time and present for the entirety of each board meeting.
“As you say sometimes, Chris, life happens,” said Board Member Tsai, directing his statement toward Trustee Chris Norwood. “And we should be mindful of that. Sometimes in the late afternoon, people are still coming from work. A lot of things can come up. And so while we all make the efforts, no one’s perfect. And I feel as long as we can get the work done, that should be the priority.”
Tsai then went on to say that he only remembered ever being late for a few meetings. At that point, then-Vice President Hon Lien (now the President) replied, “Let me clarify that, Michael: You are late almost all the time.”
Tsai was flabbergasted, but wasted no time coming back with, “Do you have data to back that up, Vice President Lien?”
“Go back to the minutes. The minutes will tell you when you arrived,” Lien replied.
“Have you done an actual data analysis?” asked Tsai.
The Beat went back to the available meeting minutes online and found that Tsai was late a total of 12 times across 8 months of meetings. (Note that the Board has, on average, about two meeting days per month.)
Not only that, but The Beat found that sometimes Tsai missed entire closed session meetings, wherein the Board comes together to discuss business without the public present. Tsai also missed whole Study Sessions; one of which, again, was the 11/12 meeting where the bylaw items presented at the 11/26 meeting were initially worked on. All other Board Members — Lien, Norwood, and Trustee Kelly Yip-Chuan were present.
Machelle Kessinger, California School Employee Association (CSEA) President, came up to the mic while the topic of being on time was discussed. She brought up the recent Study Session that Tsai had missed: “I was at the meeting and we had a great audience. Thank you for the members who decided to show up to something important. Michael, you were not there. Do your homework. The majority of these [board bylaw revisions and new bylaw] are because of what’s been happening,” said Kessinger, implying that Tsai was the reason for all the bylaw changes. “Every time I come to a study session, you’re either not there or you’re late. You waltz in at the very end.”
She also later added: “You’re an elected official. We elected you to be here on time. We elected you to be at the study sessions. That’s what a team does. When you’re late, when you’re not present, you have no idea what’s going on. And it shows tonight.”
Another community member also got up and said she appreciated the addition of stating Board Members should be on time, since students are expected to arrive at school on time and ready to learn each day.
The Beat also found an instance of Tsai disappearing from a meeting without explanation, only to reappear an hour and a half later. At a special all-day Board meeting on October 5 at the Santa Clara County Office of Education, Tsai arrived at 9:12am. Although he was only 12 minutes late for this one (the meeting started at 9am), he got up and left at 10:49am. Then he walked back into the middle of the meeting, rejoining it at 12:20pm.
In a 3-1 vote, the item of revising the Board Group agreement was passed. Tsai was the only one who dissented.
“When we do something great for kids, I love to applaud. I love to be excited about it.” said then-President Chris Norwood. “But when we have to do things for adults in this, it’s a struggle. And it’s not necessarily what we want to do at any time. But, at times, it needs to be done.”
The next item involved new Board Bylaw 9005.1 Governance Standards: Censure and Procedures. The Board was to conduct the first reading thereof and make any revisions.
This item had also been discussed at the 11/12 Study Session. In preparing for this item, the Board had looked at the ways in which other school districts handle their Censure and Procedures. Based on the Board’s direction, Superintendent Jordan used Board policies from Orange County and Morgan Hill to craft MUSD’s new Board bylaw.
At the beginning of the new bylaw, it reads:
To maximize Board effectiveness and public confidence in District governance, Board members are expected to govern responsibly and hold themselves to the highest standards of ethical conduct.
The Board expects its members to work with each other and the Superintendent to ensure that a high quality education is provided to each student.
Among the listed items expected of a Board member on the newly proposed Censure and Procedures bylaw: keep learning and achievement of all students as the primary focus; act with dignity, and understand the implications of demeanor and behavior; and understand that authority rests with the Board as a whole and not with individuals.
The document also went on to state that the district was strongly committed to ethics, which necessitated the creation of a procedure that would ensure the censuring, or formal criticism, of any Board member who violates “Board policies, bylaws, Board Group Agreements, Board direction, norms for governance behavior…”
It also states that a dereliction of duty occurs when Board Members, among other things, arrive late to meetings, are absent from meetings, and fall asleep during meetings. In addition to his lateness and absences, Tsai is also known to fall asleep during Board meetings. Audience members of past Board meetings have been known to take to social media with photos in which they’ve caught Tsai sleeping on the dais.
Tsai sleeping on the dais at different meetings.
Again, Tsai was the only voice opposed to the new bylaw. He said he felt Censure was merely being used as a political tool and said it felt like a target was being painted on his back.
“I am the youngest member of this Board. I am the new kid on the block,” said Tsai. “So that’s my concern. I’m not here to play politics. I’m here to help the kids. And creating something that could get used as a political weapon, I don’t think it really helps that mission.”
It was agreed that Tsai would take time to formulate notes on the new bylaw, and that the Board would review them before the item comes back for a second reading in January. (Superintendent Jordan received Tsai’s notes at the 12/10 Board meeting, and they were distributed to the Board and some members of the public.)
The final Board bylaw revision discussed that night was Board Bylaw 9250 and Exhibit 9250 Remuneration, Reimbursement, and Other Benefits. At the 11/12 study session, the Board had revised it to state that “monthly compensation provided to Board members shall be commensurate with the percentage of meetings attended in the entirety or in part of each meeting during the month unless otherwise authorized by Board resolution.”
The bylaw also states that a member would still be compensated if they had to miss for illness, jury duty, or any other hardship that the Board agrees to be acceptable.
Continuing to express disapproval, Tsai found fault with the bylaw, and ended up making a bizarre motion, which stated that Board members should be compensated with 100% pay even if they only attend 50% of the meetings. His motion didn’t receive a second.
The revised bylaw ended up passing 3-1, with Tsai dissenting.
At the next meeting in January, the Board will revisit the bylaw on Censure and Procedures.