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The Strange Atmosphere of York Region District School Board

The Strange Atmosphere of York Region District School Board

TORONTO – If one is a public-school supporter in York Region… good luck to you!

Imagine living in the South West reaches of the region (Vaughan-Woodbridge) and wanting to meet and/ or speak to your Trustee.

If the weather and traffic flows co-operate, on a good day, you may need a minimum of a one-hour drive to see her/him at the Board offices in Aurora.

Geography seems to provide insulation against the penetrating intrusion of principles like openness, responsible behaviour, accountability or transparency.

One can “make things up on the fly”, secure in the knowledge that few will take the trouble to pose those uncomfortable questions that “keep people on the up and up” and organizations loyal to strategic goals and “the common good”.

The YRDSB is a big organization. It is the custodian of a public asset, publicly funded, educational enterprise with an annual budget in excess of $1.4 billion. It is the biggest employer in York Region. “It is easy to lose your way”.

In 2016-2017, the YRDSB came close to doing just that, as the 3 Rs were replaced by what seemed to be the three Cs: Corrosion, Corruption and Cover-up. Allegations of Bullying, racial and religious discrimination, irresponsible handling of public finances, “sweet-heart” employment contracts, financial mismanagement and so forth led to shake ups at the top of the Administrative food chain, resignations of elected officials and the appointment of investigators by the Ministry of Education.

The spark? A concerned parent, Charline Grant, whose children were the object of undignified behaviour by some insensitive staff sought redress. She was met initially with a wall of indifference, if not hostility. Her own Trustee, Anna De Bartolo, then Chair of the Board, defended “the party line”.

The then Director, John Parappally, also stuck to his guns. He was later dismissed. After an executive search exercise, he was replaced by the current Director, Louise Sirisko – a seasoned educational administrator.

Trustee De Bartolo surprisingly survived the wrath of the electorate in 2018, even as a field of seven candidates challenged her. Chief among them was Charline Grant, who placed second.

Parappally launched a multi-million lawsuit against the YRDSB. Depending on the outcome, this would implicate all trustees – presumably including ones like De Bartolo with whom he had a previously professional relationship.

De Bartolo, less than four weeks after having been sworn in, resigned, citing personal reasons and issues of privacy. The Board clearly had advanced warning. They ask the City of Vaughan for estimates of cost in the event the Board were to decide to fill an impending vacancy with a by-election.

Director Sirisko, who had no relationships with either Administration or Board members during the tumultuous period, strikes one as someone who is trying to keep a porous boat afloat. Her Board decided to opt for a by-election, at the cost of $177,000 dollars.

In doing so, the Board decided to break with its own precedent (common sense and well-established principle) of appointing the second-place candidate in the previous election as a replacement.

It works in other aspects of life as well. As a matter of illustration, when Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in the Seoul Olympics of 1988, no one suggested the new medallist ought to go through the entire qualifying process from the beginning.

The Olympic Committee awarded the gold medal to the second-place finisher.

The YRDSB still has the procedural mechanism to rescind its previous, hastily- made decision. The chair at Tuesday’s meeting missed the opportunity to call for Trustees willing to move such a Motion. There is still time.

Charline Grant may emerge the winner, nonetheless. Irrespective of any outcome in the event of a potential by-election, the issue of integrity may continue to nip at the heels of the organization.

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