The San Jose Unified School District Board of Trustees appointed data scientist Michael Melillo to temporarily fill the Area 4 position left vacant last month by Paymon Zarghami’s resignation. Melillo took the oath of office on Thursday and will serve the region’s largest school district until the term ends in December.
The six-year San Jose resident and father of two school-aged children works for Apple and boasts a two-decade career in the technology sector. For the the past two years, Melillo has volunteered as an adult literacy tutor and served as vice chair of the city of San Jose’s Library and Early Education Commission.
“The board is proud to appoint Michael to join us in preparing today’s students to be the thinkers, leaders and creators of tomorrow,” board President Susan Ellenberg said in a prepared statement. “We want to thank an incredibly talented and capable cohort of candidates for stepping up to represent their community and our children, and we encourage all of them to remain engaged with the district and our schools.”
But another candidate who applied for the job thinks otherwise and is apparently gearing up for a fight this fall when the Area 4 seat comes up for election.
Evergreen Teachers Association President Brian Wheatley questioned whether Melillo’s data science chops would make up for his lack of public schools experience.
“My focus is on November,” Wheatley said, “and how I absolutely believe that because of my background as a teacher and union leader for 35 years, that this is what I’m called to do. I believe I can bring an important perspective as a teacher to the board that currently doesn’t have that perspective at all.”
Melillo shrugged off the criticism, saying his expertise will lend itself well to the new role.
“Some people call it decision science: making the best decisions when provided different options,” he said in an interview. “I think that’s a really good fit for the board members as they act as oversight over the district. I have a lot to get up to speed with when it comes to the nuts and bolts of education, I got to learn all the terms and acronyms and everything, but I have plenty of experience having to hit the ground running.”
In the months ahead, Milello and his four fellow trustees will have to update the district’s Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) and finalize next year’s budget. The board will continue to grapple with a stubborn achievement gap and a community conflicted over charter schools, which critics say siphon money from already depleted public schools.
Trustees also will have to revisit the issue of two specific charter schools petitions—from Promise Academy and Perseverance Prep—that they rejected last year, only to have the state Board of Education overrule that decision.
Melillo takes a neutral position in the charter school debate. But he noted that his education in Connecticut's public schools, undergrad studies at UMass and post-grad experience at San Jose State, have given him a vast appreciation for public education.
“If [charter schools] bring some creativity and innovation to the table, then it’s absolutely worth giving them a shot,” Melillo said. “On the other hand, if they’re not filling a need and not bringing anything creative or new to the community, then it’s not a positive.”
Personally, Melillo said, his focus and passion lies in something far less divisive: early education, particularly preschool.
“I’ve never seen any data or report or evidence that contradicts the fact that better preschool experiences and more education early on in a student’s life that doesn’t correlate to better performance,” he said.
SJUSD board meetings are held on the first and third Thursdays of the month at 6pm in the district office at 855 Lenzen Ave., San Jose. The next one is set for April 5.