The showdown between data analyst Michael Melillo and Evergreen Teachers’ Association President Brian Wheatley has been quietly brewing since early this year, when Melillo was appointed to the vacant Area 4 seat following the resignation of Paymon Zarghami in February, but not without raising some questions.
Wheatley questioned his opponent’s qualifications at the time, but a number of local groups and individuals have endorsed Melillo’s run since then, including trustee and San Jose City Council hopeful Pam Foley and outgoing board president and county supervisor candidate Susan Ellenberg.
Melillo is a relative political newcomer without any teaching experience but his expertise in other areas has come in handy during his short time on the board. The San Jose Library and Early Education Commission vice chair’s knack for numbers hasn’t gone unnoticed by the San Jose Teachers’ Association, which, in their recent endorsement, called him a “visionary leader on issues related to the district’s finances and strategic planning” and for finding “compromise on the allocation of Measure Y parcel tax funds.”
But other labor members have accused Melillo of wanting to eliminate teacher pensions, which he denies. “I think that teachers should have more control of their own paychecks,” he said. “A teacher in their 20s may want to contribute less ... and they should be able to make that determination for themselves, instead of it being mandated by state law.”
A parent of two children enrolled in the district, Melillo views his role as trustee in the same light as his job measuring product failure rates at Apple, where he sometimes finds himself “advocating on behalf of customers to get stuff fixed.”
“It’s kind of analogous, customers with Apple products to students in the district,” Melillo said about his responsibilities as trustee. “We need someone to advocate for them. We want to make sure we’re making the best possible product.”
Melillo has an eye towards building a sustainable future for district employees and families, starting with taking a close look at the “underperformance” of the Santa Clara County Treasury Investment Portfolio and taking steps to provide teacher housing. With rising housing costs being linked to the recent decline in district enrollment, Melillo thinks now is the time to jump into action.
“When you have declining enrollment and no indication that’s going to change any time soon, we have to evaluate our portfolio of properties,” he said. “Now is a good time because we can partner with the county’s Measure A ... and if the city’s Measure V passes in November, we may be able to utilize that as well. We wouldn’t necessarily need to bring forward our own bond measure, so doing it now is a really good opportunity.”
Bringing insight as both a long-time teacher and teacher union president, Wheatley also envisions tackling the regional housing crisis by developing similar partnerships with both city and county entities. But the father of two adopted daughters—who is endorsed by the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, South Bay Labor Council, state Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose)—wants to address issues that directly impact a student’s learning experience and wellbeing, and says that his firsthand knowledge as a teacher of 30 years would make a real difference.
“Another piece that’s so crucial right now is student safety in terms of the national debate around gun control and the issues that are coming out of Washington, that’s happening with (ICE),” Wheatley said in a phone interview. “Kids can’t thrive if they’re worried about safety. Making every campus safe and welcoming is huge” which is why he supports both the city and district writing their own sanctuary resolutions, the latter of which he lent a hand in developing.
Having lived with cerebral palsy his entire life, Wheatley said he’s always had empathy for the underdog.
“I understand to a certain level what it’s like to be discriminated against. I’ve always been about giving agency, power to kids,” he said. “Often people ask me about my disability, but often they tell me a story about their special needs child and how they had to fight to get service (in school). I will make sure toe advocate for every child, but particularly for those kids. I feel to my core it’s been my experience my whole life.”