For years, the York school board stood above all others: touted by the province as a model, boasted by the premier as her favourite, a valued testing ground for new education strategies and equity work.
Now, just how far — and how fast — it has fallen has stunned educators and parents alike.
A board once in the province’s good graces, is now regarded as a disgrace — with numerous incidents of racism ignored, a trustee, Nancy Elgie, 82, who has admitted to referring to a black parent as a n-----, a principal who posted Islamophobic material online, and questionable conduct and travel by elected officials.
Read more: Nancy Elgie must resign over racial slur: York board chair
Recently, after the Star’s year-long investigation into the board, Education Minister Mitzie Hunter appointed two troubleshooters to determine what exactly had gone awry. They have been deluged with so many requests to meet they can only accept email submissions from now on. Their report is due April 7.
“We were considered the most progressive board in the province,” said Bill Crothers, a former York Region District School Board trustee who served as chair for 15 years and worked with long-standing director Bill Hogarth.
“People came to our schools to study how we were teaching students.”
But it was not only about student achievement, he said. The board also had an active and engaged race relations committee that ensured parents’ voices were heard, something parents now say is lacking.
“It was fairly unique in the province at the time,” said Crothers, who retired in 2011.
But as a trustee, Crothers said the most important role was to hire the director of education to “do the best for the students’ education.” Hogarth, who came from North York, stayed at the board for 16 years, but instead of a 10-year contract — an unprecedented length, which the York board recently granted controversial director J. Philip Parappally — the veteran educator saw his contract extended every four years.
Crothers said the board’s success at the time was due to the “presence of a strong leader … who can put an end to any infighting pretty quickly,” he said.
Joel Hertz, a former trustee involved in the hiring of current director Parappally, says promoting him in 2014 was fraught with controversy.
The Star has previously reported how Parappally wasn’t endorsed by the third-party consultant brought in to facilitate the hiring, as the consultant was concerned that Parappally brought notes to the interview and didn’t have “strong references.”
A year later, he was given an unprecedented 10-year contract, raising eyebrows across the province.
“I still don’t know why they did the 10-year thing,” said Hertz, who admitted he voted for the contract. He, like other education insiders, believes trust in the organization has plummeted since then.
In the past, Parappally has told the Star via email he was “humbled” to be chosen as director and that “in accordance with the Education Act, I am qualified to hold the position of director of education in Ontario.” He earned $268,267 in 2015.
The previous chair, Anna DeBartolo, has also told the Star the 10 years was needed to provide the board with stability over a long term.
Avis Glaze, a former associate director at the board under Hogarth, said, at that time, the board’s focus was on “creating leaders with integrity.”
When other boards were cutting leadership programs in the late 1990s, the York board created a leadership institute to train and develop future principals, she added.
“People were flocking to the board because they knew we were investing in our people,” she said. “Our leadership style was collaborative, participatory. It was not top down. It was always about creating leaders with integrity and character.”
Glaze, who came to Canada from Jamaica as a young teacher, said equity was always a top priority during her 16 years at the board, as was keeping parents involved.
“Organizations must make sure equity and diversity are at the forefront and not just a plaque on the wall. They must be a model of equity,” said Glaze, who now lives in British Columbia.
Parappally told the Star the York board “remains committed to providing high quality instruction in learning and working environments that are safe and welcoming. By any measure of achievement, our students continue to perform above provincial averages.
“This has been a challenging time for our board,” he added. “But I want to assure our communities that we have already started taking action to address their concerns.
“We welcome the opportunity to work with Ms. Suzanne Herbert and Mr. Patrick Case and look forward to implementing their recommendations,” Parappally said, referring to the two investigators appointed by the education minister. “We also continue to work with our stakeholders to look at how we can move forward to address these concerns and to strengthen trust and confidence in our board.”
John Ippolito, an education professor at York University who has conducted research projects with the York Region board, said he’s baffled as to why the board isn’t looking at some of the outreach it is doing in a handful of schools to help it regain parents’ trust.
One project involves arranging social and educational get-togethers for parents and teachers to meet and “come in and share a meal, while the kids go off and parents and administrators and researchers from York University discuss issues that parents think are worth talking about.
“It has a profound impact on a school, a positive impact” that can help avoid the kinds of problems the board is now experiencing, he said.
“In light of what’s going on now, that’s the kind of groundwork you need to deal with these issues that emerge,” he said. “They are bound to happen — not just in York Region,” but it’s the response that counts.
“If you’ve laid a culture of communication, and preferably a culture of trust and an ability to speak to each other, it will serve you well when these episodes (happen) … there are some real gaps in how the board is addressing the issue.”
For her part, Glaze said she will be closely watching the findings of the investigators sent into the York board.
“We have to restore public confidence, with all members of the community, especially our diverse communities,” she said. “No organization is good unless it can serve all its people. We need to personalize and individualize the strategies we are using, so that all children regardless of background, regardless of personal circumstance can achieve success,” she said.
“That was our philosophy in York Region. No child was left behind.”
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