After interviewing 8 candidates over the course of nearly 5 hours, the majority of MUSD’s Board of Education selected Hai Minh Ngo as their newest board member.
The interview process began just after 5:30pm on Tuesday, August 13. All 8 candidates had their own allotted time to come up and sit before a microphone facing the Board. Along with Ngo, the other candidates were: Patricia Boehm, Mauricio Gavidia, Chia-Ling Kong, William Lam, Sharatkumar Joshi, Silvia Dias, and Elena Sherbakov. Though each was unique in terms of background and experience, they all had one thing in common — a willingness to serve their community and school district.
After each candidate responded to the same questions — which included things like: What skills and insights do you bring with you that will support us in our MUSD vision and mission? and What should be the relationship between the board members and the superintendent? — the board members scored each individual, and also gave their top choices for the person they thought should fill the seat.
Once all the candidates were interviewed, the scores were calculated and the top choices were looked at. Superintendent Cheryl Jordan informed the room that two candidates had come out on top — Chia-Ling Kong and Hai Minh Ngo.
Kong had scored higher, but at the same time, Ngo had been selected by three out of four board members as their “number one pick.”
Unsure of how to proceed, the Board started to discuss the best options for deciding who, among the two, should fill the seat.
“There are two options that we have based on the rating system that we put forth. We have the score sheet, and we also have the rankings,” said Board President Chris Norwood.
Trustee Michael Tsai felt that the score sheet should determine who the selection was. “The score sheet is a much more granular and fine metric of comparison versus the ranking system,” he said. He went on to mention that Kong’s lead in terms of the scoring system should not be overlooked: “The scoring rubric reflects a much more refined analysis. On top of that, a 9-point difference of a 40-point total is significant.”
Superintendent Jordan mentioned that perhaps the Board should look into how the candidates’ responses fit with their Strategic Goals, as well as their “why,” which the Board had discussed during their board retreat over the spring.
“Part of the reason why we do a ranking such as this and not a straight score is that it allows the interview panel to also consider those things such as how does somebody align with the culture of the team,” said Superintendent Jordan.
At one point, interested in alleviating the stalemate, the Board’s Vice President Hon Lien returned to her scoring sheet to change her scores. But altering her scoring did nothing to change the result.
“Just to be clear, we’re allowed to change our scores?” asked Tsai, bothered by Lien’s attempt.
“…it’s unchartered territory, so I suggest that you just have a discussion,” responded Superintendent Jordan. “I think you have the ranking, you have the scores…and I recommend discussing and coming to consensus that way.”
In an interview with The Beat a couple days after the interview process, Chia-Ling Kong, who serves as a commissioner on Milpitas’ Energy and Environmental Sustainability Commission, expressed disappointment at the way things had been handled: “I was a bit shocked when one of the board members asked for her score card back so that she could change her score. And that’s when it hit me. That this process might not be as fair as I thought it would be,” said Kong. “Just imagine, if you’re a judge at a gymnastic competition and said, ‘Can I get my score card back?’ because you don’t like the result? And this is done in an open meeting? I was taken aback.”
That night, after the Board wrestled with determining how best to officially choose between both candidates, they decided that each of them would take a vote on who they wanted to see fill the seat.
However, that did not yet conclude the matter. An even number of trustees presents an inevitable risk when it comes to votes, in that such a group can end up tied — which is what happened…
President Chris Norwood and Trustee Michael Tsai both selected Kong, while Vice President Hon Lien and Trustee Kelly Yip-Chuan both selected Ngo. With the vote split, things remained at a standstill.
That’s when both candidates were called up to the microphone side-by-side to face the Board yet again.
Once seated back in front of them, Ngo and Ling were asked about their level of potential time commitment, and also whether or not they would run for a board position in the future, were they not selected for it that night. Ngo said he would most definitely run; Ling mentioned that while she has experience supporting other political campaigns, in the end, absent having served on the Board, she wasn’t quite sure whether or not she would invest the time into running a campaign for a seat.
That answer proved to be a big factor in determining the right fit for the position. It was enough to sway President Norwood’s vote toward Ngo. And with 3 votes (from Norwood, Yip-Chuan, and Lien), Ngo was selected as the Board’s Provisional Appointee for the seat.
“It’s kind of strange that we were told it was going to be a straight rating rubric. But here we are,” said Tsai, after everyone confirmed their votes.
But Superintendent Jordan had, in fact, mentioned to the public before the interviews were underway that there would be two scoring metrics.
When asked about whether or not it was indeed clear going in that two metrics were going to be used to determine the selection, Norwood said, “It was clear. We decided that there should be multiple metrics of measurement. It can’t be one size fits all. You’re not going to please all the people all the time.”
It bears noting that back in early 2017, when Bob Nuñez left behind his School Board seat to join the Milpitas City Council, a similar interview process took place to determine who would fill his seat. However, during that process, the scoring sheet was the sole method of determining who received the Board seat, and there was no mention of “top choices” factoring into the decision. Kelly Yip-Chuan, who currently sits on the School Board, went in for an interview, though she was not selected during that time. Robert Jung, who received the highest score, was selected to fill the seat.
Yip-Chuan walked away from that experience feeling dissatisfied, as scoring seemed ultimately based on how well candidates did on their interview.
“Some people don’t do well in a live interview, but they do have great experience on their application. It’s not your normal interview situation…you have the board and cabinet, and an audience behind you, and it’s being televised. It changes the way you would normally interview,” said Yip-Chuan. “It happened to me. I just froze, a few years ago, during my interview.”
Yip-Chuan ran for her seat in 2018, and won her election.
Yip-Chuan believes that adding the new metric of “top choices” helped to even the playing field.
“The scoring system was basically about how well you answered those questions, and under that unusual circumstances, you’re not going to do as well as you’d do in a regular interview,” added Yip-Chuan. “We can’t overlook their experiences and what they’ve done. We have to look at the overall picture of the candidate, not just the interview.” Yip-Chuan felt good about last week’s interview process, and believes that Hai Minh Ngo was the right candidate for the seat.
In an interview with The Beat, President Norwood also stood behind the Board’s new method of selecting a new trustee: “Last time we did the appointment, all we had was the scoring system. The appointment process is a difficult one and to ensure integrity, we added a different scoring rubric for the benefit of all participants,” said Norwood.
However, Trustee Michael Tsai feels the opposite: “Many community members have shared their concerns with me about the fairness of the appointment process, and their numbers have grown sharply since Tuesday’s meeting,” shared Tsai. “Some regretted applying, or declined to even apply in the first place, because they knew they would never be given a fair chance. Disturbingly, a few feared being retaliated against for raising their concerns.”
Back in June, the Board had voted to create a subcommittee to go through the applications of those who wished to pursue the open seat. Norwood and Yip-Chaun served on the subcommittee, working to select the applicants that would be interviewed. The process took about 4 hours. And of the 17 applications they received, they narrowed it down to 8 candidates, who then appeared for the interview.
Maurico Gavidia, one of the 8 candidates chosen, mentioned that it’s hard to determine who the best candidate is based on one round of interviews: “From what I observed, there seemed to have been two scoring systems. It also appeared that they did not have the same results. I do think it was flawed,” shared Gavidia. “The board members appeared dismayed at the results. Based on my recollection, it appears that the ultimate decision did not align with the scoring. For the viewing audience, I don’t believe it helped with credibility. I recall hearing rumblings from the audience when board members discussed changing their scoring.” He also added: “Having said all that, I do believe the board and candidates all have the best intentions and genuinely want to do the best for the district and community, and I’m grateful for that. None of us are perfect, and I’m sure there were lessons for all of us from the experience.”
At the end of the meeting, Superintendent Jordan got up to administer an Oath of Office to Ngo. When she finished, she informed the room that the notice of the appointment would be posted to the public. If the Superintendent receives no petitions for a special election after the public posting, Ngo will be formally sworn in at the next board meeting, which takes place on August 27.
“The interview process was one that was comprehensive; each candidate provided thoughtful responses, and each provided different insights about how we can be our best as a governance team for our students, MUSD team members, and community,” shared Superintendent Jordan with The Beat. “It’s important that our Board has an opportunity to discuss the candidates so that it can determine which of the top two would best complement its strengths and ability to support the district in reaching its strategic goals and realizing its vision. I appreciate our Board for its diligence in being transparent and inclusive of various perspectives and experiences.”
Days after the meeting, Kong mentioned that she would walk away from fighting the issue, because she feels that what she has to contribute would not be welcomed in a system that “seeks to maintain status quo.” She also added: “I have nothing against the other candidates because I felt everyone was well-deserving of the position. But what I was most concerned with was the fairness of the process. Because it looks like there was a predetermined outcome they were trying to achieve. I feel like that’s dangerous to witness in public government.”
Ngo has three children. His oldest attends Rose Elementary School, and is about to go into first grade. While he was in Kindergarten, Ngo joined the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) and immediately felt a strong connection the work he was doing there. He also serves on the Community Board Advisory Council (CBAC). He, his wife, and their kids have been residents of Milpitas for the past several years.
“Minh Ngo’s priorities were in order and aligned with mine. That’s why I chose him,” said Kelly Yip-Chuan. “And that was the main factor. Both candidates were excellent and either would’ve done a great job. I wish we had two positions. The reality is we had one, and we had to choose one.”