In recent weeks, Michael Tsai, a Board Member of the Milpitas Unified School District’s Board of Education, has taken to Facebook to claim that his fellow Board Members have been purposefully leaving him out of meetings.
On November 9, Tsai wrote: “Another board member is again refusing to connect me into the closed session board meeting. They appear to be going into the closed session meeting now without me. This is ridiculous.”
As Tsai’s posts have built up over the past several weeks, The Beat decided to look into his claims…
To understand what AB 361 is, one must first know about Executive Order N-25-20, which Governor Gavin Newsom issued during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 12, 2020.
This Executive Order gave local public agencies, like MUSD’s Board of Education, permission to teleconference for their meetings. In doing so, it allowed for some Brown Act provisions to be waived. The Brown Act is a set of provisions for local government in California, guaranteeing that communities will have open access and transparency in all public meetings.
In 2021, as more and more people have been vaccinated, and schools and businesses have re-opened across the country, Newsom went ahead and signed AB 361 into law. AB 361 enables local public agencies to continue teleconferencing for meetings without having to abide by certain provisions of the Brown Act. It went into effect on October 1, 2021.
The only catch is, in order to continue virtual meetings, the local agency’s elected body must declare a “state of emergency.” Upon declaring it, a local agency would then be able to meet remotely, and still continue to ensure transparency and access for the community. AB 361 is optional, allowing local public agencies like our School Board to determine whether or not they deem it safe to meet in-person.
The benefit is that by declaring a state of emergency and adopting AB 361, the public agency doesn’t have to follow certain pre-pandemic Brown Act provisions. For example, pre-pandemic, the Brown Act called for posting the addresses of all locations that elected officials were attending the virtual meeting from, so as to offer full transparency to the public. This meant that an official teleconferencing from their house would have to release their home address to the public. AB 361 does away with the need for listing a public address while teleconferencing.
Back to Mr. Tsai’s claims…
At the September 28th Board Meeting, Trustee Tsai made a motion to declare a “state of emergency” so that he could continue attending meetings virtually.
Earlier this year, back in March, the four other School Board Members all felt safe enough to resume meeting in-person. Tsai was the lone exception. He continued to stay at home for meetings since it was still allowed. His desire was to enact the “state of emergency” so that he could continue to stay home and attend meetings virtually.
But Tsai’s motion received no second. None of the other four Board Members deemed it necessary to make such a declaration and allow for the elected body to meet from home. Reason being, schools were finally open after having been closed for over a year; teachers were back in classrooms with students.
“We test for COVID before all of our in-person meetings. Teachers and students are in-person all day, every day. We as Board Members meet every two weeks, for 4-5 hours. I feel that to do our job and connect best with the community members, we ought to be in the boardroom conducting our meetings,” Board Clerk Hon Lien told The Beat, when asked why she didn’t vote toward enacting a “state of emergency.”
In the last several weeks, Tsai has tried repeatedly to request Zoom links for meetings. However, by law, the School Board is only allowed to do away with certain Brown Act provisions and meet virtually if they’re in a “state of emergency.” And should a Board Member wish to meet virtually, they must first disclose their location and address to the public.
The Beat reached out to MUSD’s Communication Specialist Scott Forstner to ask whether or not Tsai had ever submitted his physical address. “Board Member Tsai has not submitted a physical address in order to participate in meetings remotely under the Brown Act,” wrote Forstner in an email reply. “He would need to submit the physical address 72 hours in advance so it appears on the agenda.”
This means that if the School Board were to give Tsai a virtual link to attend, they would be violating the Brown Act, and breaking the law.
Despite this, Tsai has continued to claim, again and again, on social media that Board Members are purposefully leaving him out of meetings by not providing him with Zoom links.
“We’re following all the board policies that are set forth,” said Board Member Minh Ngo in an interview with The Beat. “Michael’s attempts to operate outside of board policies is disconcerting and disappointing.”
It also bears noting that Tsai has continued to use social media to wage personal attacks against his fellow Board Members, like Board President Chris Norwood and Board Clerk Hon Lien, even after the majority of the Board voted to censure him in March of this year for that very behavior.
Recently, on Monday, November 8, Tsai went after MUSD Board of Education’s Vice President Kelly Yip-Chuan, claiming that she invited herself into a classroom and started promoting her Real Estate business to unsuspecting students at the Middle College High School program started up by the school district for high school students.
On his Facebook page, Tsai wrote: “The board member in question did indeed invite herself into the classroom in front of children, speaking at length to these children about her own business interests and activities.”
However, in an email exchange obtained by The Beat, it was apparent that Yip-Chuan had been invited by the school to attend. Yip-Chuan was asked to come to the class and make a presentation about her experiences as an entrepreneur. The school asked her to speak to students about how to find employment, get hands-on experience, and learn about internships and job shadowing opportunities.
Days after making her presentation, Tsai accused Vice President Yip-Chuan of showing up to the classroom, uninvited, for her own personal gain, intending to promote her Real Estate business to a room of high school students.
“It’s unfortunate that Member Tsai turns all positive things we do for our students into something so negative,” said Yip-Chuan to the Beat. “It really reflects on the type of person he is. This conspiracy theory needs to stop.”
In the meantime, since the School Board has not voted to declare a “state of emergency,” Board Member Tsai has started showing up to open meetings, wearing goggles and a face mask, sitting far removed from the other Board Members to maintain social distance.
On October 26, Tsai, attending an open session Board Meeting in person, had an item placed on the agenda. He asked that the other Board Members provide him with his own separate, clean, well-ventilated room on-site, to accommodate him while attending in-person meetings.
After a heated exchange on the topic, the rest of the Board did not approve Trustee Tsai’s request. To the majority’s point, Board Member Lien called Tsai out for attending a variety of public gatherings and taking photos with people wherein he wasn’t wearing a mask. So, Lien wondered, why wouldn’t he feel safe attending a school board meeting?
Tsai defended himself by stating that the public events were short and that board meetings required hours of being in a room together.
MUSD Board President Chris Norwood, Vice President Yip-Chuan, and Board Member Tsai himself are all up for re-election in November 2022. None of the three Board Members have announced their intention to run.
Michael Tsai declined to comment on this story.
This article has been updated.