As some Milpitas residents took to the lectern Tuesday night to protest the appointment process behind Hai Minh Ngo gaining the Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) board’s empty seat, one resident who stood behind the appointment process fired forceful words at Board Member Michael Tsai, suggesting that he will take action to get Tsai recalled.
Since Ngo’s controversial appointment at the August 13 school board meeting — which drew criticism from attendants over the scoring rubrics used to rank the seat’s candidates — there have been stirs about a community petition for a special election to fill the seat instead. And just as loudly, there have been calls to respect the decision of appointing Ngo.
As of Wednesday, Santa Clara County Office of Education Public Information Supervisor Summer Reeves confirmed that indeed a petition has been filed for a special election to fill the seat.
Tuesday’s meeting was, for many residents, the first opportunity they had to publicly voice their grievances in front of the school board.
A motion at the beginning of the meeting to extend public comments to at least 30 minutes failed. Public comment was then set to last the usual 20 minutes.
Despite rumors of a push by the community for a special election, strong words against holding one were the subject of many comments…
“I’ve never in my life seen anything so childish as asking for a special election,” said one resident, “which would cost the district a tremendous amount of money.”
If a special election for the seat is called, Santa Clara County officials estimate it would cost taxpayers at least $105,000. The funds would almost certainly divert general funds from within the school district to help pay for the election. The seat would then be up for grabs again for the regularly-scheduled general election in November 2020 — 14 months from now.
But, as promised, some residents took to the lectern to push for a special election anyway.
“Do we allow kids to change their test papers once they’re submitted?” asked another resident rhetorically. He was referring to an action on the part of board Vice President Hon Lien, who changed her scoresheet at the August 13 meeting in an attempt to break the board’s stalemate. “Is this what we are teaching our kids — that this is acceptable behavior? This decision has to be recalled,” he continued. He then asked the board to proceed with a special election.
Perhaps the most audibly forceful comments came from one David Flashner, a resident whose daughter attends Anthony Spangler Elementary School. As he stared down the board, he accused freshman Board Member Michael Tsai of playing favorites in the August 13 vote:
“Both candidates came up after the tie [of votes] to answer questions,” said Flashner. “It was clear at that moment that School Board Member [Michael] Tsai had a favorite and was disappointed that she wasn’t selected.”
Flashner was referring to Chia-Ling Kong, the runner-up in the selection process. He rebuked Tsai’s actions, questioning whether or not he “was here for the kids to succeed in school” and if he put “the children first.”
Kong was not present at Tuesday’s meeting.
“After Ngo was chosen to be the new board member, Tsai took to social media and the press to voice his frustration in the [voting] process,” Flashner continued. “A process that was all known from the beginning. Where I come from, that’s called being a sore loser.”
He then turned directly to Tsai.
“For you to have the audacity to call for a special election,” Flashner said to Tsai, “to fill the now-filled seat is appalling. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Tsai denied during the meeting that he’d called for an election.
Flashner added, “Maybe what we need to do is call for a special election to replace you.”
“Mr. Flashner, you keep speaking about the need to help our kids,” Tsai said. “I fully agree with you. Giving our students the best education begins with very transparent processes at the leadership level. This issue is not about one person over another. I actually gave [Hai] Minh [Ngo] very high marks,” he continued. “It’s about sticking with the processes that are already set forth rather than changing the rules on the spot.”
Flashner remained visibly dissatisfied.
“The board has done an amazing job,” said Flashner in a follow-up interview with The Beat, “but what has Tsai done to close the achievement gap and help teachers and staff be safer? We can use that money for a special election instead to put more technology in the classroom, like more Chromebooks. The money alone could buy so much more in just computers for students.”
Flashner says he’s currently looking into beginning a petition to recall Tsai.
Diana Orlando, the president of the Milpitas Teachers’ Association, and a teacher in the district for over three decades, took Flashner’s side when she appeared before the board.
“We are here for kids, and kids only,” Orlando said as she rebuked a smoking gun video that advocacy group Better Milpitas (the same group that pushed hard last year against allowing cannabis shops in Milpitas) had published. The video alleged several irregularities in the Ngo selection process. It then asked for a special election to fill the seat. “Those of you out of the audience who think that spending money on a special election when we are already looking at budget cuts…” Orlando continued, “Grow up.”
“I watched the video,” said a resident who identified herself as Tina. She wanted to point out that a 3-2 vote had been cast in favor of Hai Minh Ngo, despite the board having only four voting members. “It was disturbing.”
The 3-2 vote was a result of the ranking system used by the board, which gave more weight to those candidates who ranked higher. According to Superintendent Cheryl Jordan, Ngo had garnered more first-place votes, giving Ngo a 3-2 edge. Such an occurrence is common when voters are allowed to rank their choices, similar to what happens in a ranked-choice voting system.
“When I scored Ling [Kong] and [Hai] Minh [Ngo], they were both tied for first place so I gave each of them [a] number one [vote],” explained Board Member Kelly Yip-Chuan about the alleged irregularity. “That’s why there was that extra one vote. I skipped number two and voted the next highest score as number three. This was how the University of California ranked their colleges. In 2018, Berkeley and UCLA were tied for first so they both got a number one vote. The next highest was UC Santa Barbara and it was ranked number three. I followed this system.”
As the allotted public comment time came to an end, calls grew louder from all corners of the room in demand of public comment being extended. Others in attendance shot back, saying public comment was limited to 20 minutes, and that the forum had already gone over by several minutes.
Board President Chris Norwood tapped his gavel several times in an effort to bring order.
With that, public comment closed.
The majority of the packed house began to leave the room, some satisfied, some visibly frustrated.
“What’s obvious is that this is a very heated issue,” Norwood told those still in the room. He then thanked everyone in the room for their comments surrounding what has been one of the most heated debates in the board’s recent history.
“We are hopeful that we continue to learn from each other, that we continue to listen to each other, we continue to respect each other as we go through the process,” Norwood said, telling the audience that the board had listened to all the comments they could, and would continue to support a dialogue with the community about transparency as they moved forward with the night’s agenda.
“We are all still citizens of Milpitas, and all still have children in these schools,” concluded Norwood. “If it proceeds to a special election, then it does,” he continued. “It’s moments like these where we have the opportunity to either divide, or come together.”
Upon hearing of the petition filing with the County, Milpitas resident Joseph Weinstein told The Beat, “As a taxpayer, I am outraged.”
The County has 30 days to verify the petition for special election. If it is verified, Ngo will lose his seat, and the special election for a new board member will happen during March.