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York trustees tell education director to step down after blistering report

“We have met deadline” for first of 22 tasks set out by Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, board says.
April 13, 2017
Noor Javed and Kristin Rushowy

The day after a scathing report detailed the dysfunction, “culture of fear” and a lack of leadership at the York Region public school board, trustees went beyond what was asked of them by the education minister and told embattled director J. Philip Parappally to step down, sources told the Star.

At a special board meeting Wednesday night, trustees said they had already met the first deadline put forward in a letter from Education Minister Mitzie Hunter outlining her 22 directives, and were making progress on many others.

Board chair Loralea Carruthers opened the meeting with strong words, and an apology.

“I’m so sorry, so very sorry that so many of you have been hurt so deeply and I’m sorry that our staff . . . have been hurt, too. And I’m so sorry that our kids, in particular have been exposed to the worst in people instead of the best,” she said. “I am sorry, and my colleagues are sorry. I apologize.”

“What will happen next is action, not empty words. And it won’t be action behind closed doors either,” Carruthers said.

“So starting tonight I can say all of the trustees are on the same page, we are united and working on a clean path forward,” she said, adding they will do the “right thing.”

That right thing appeared to be asking for the dismissal of the education director, J. Philip Parappally, according to sources. It was a move the chair wouldn’t confirm publicly.

“We are going to act on the minister’s directives but we obviously can’t comment on a personnel matter,” Carruthers said, adding any discussion with the director would be in private session.

A motion passed by trustees out of the private session only “approved the motion regarding a personnel matter” but failed to offer more details.

But a source close to the trustees said during the in-camera portion of the meeting on Wednesday, trustees unanimously agreed to call for Parappally’s resignation and started the “labourious and complex” process to part ways with Parappally based on concerns around his performance — which were detailed throughout the entire report.

Parappally will have a week to respond.

He was not available after the meeting for comment, but during the meeting “apologized for the hurt he had caused.”

Trustees also put forward a number of motions to formalize a ban on travel — after being criticized in the report for jetting overseas without public approvals and, in many cases, no clear purpose — and also asked the director to establish the position of a senior administrator responsible for equity, as well as move forward on appointing an integrity commissioner.

They also encouraged all employees to make use of the employee assistance program, a requirement Hunter said should be implemented within 24 hours.

But questions remain on how the trustees will move forward, given that the report detailed a far-reaching absence of “strong and ethical” leadership.

At the end of January, Hunter appointed a two-person review team to probe the board, after concerns that incidents of racism and Islamophobia were not properly handled, international travel was getting out of hand, and the “deteriorating relationships” between trustees, staff and Parappally.

The review, released Tuesday, painted a troubling picture of a board in crisis, where trustees were unaware of their responsibilities, failed to hold to account then-trustee Nancy Elgie for referring to a black parent using the n-word, and were oblivious to public concerns about their travel or even why the review was ordered. It said leaders, both elected and the director, were not living up to their duties.

Hunter has said if the board does not act quickly, she will appoint an investigator, which puts the board closer to provincial supervision.

Parents, however, continue to call for Parappally to resign, saying the board can’t move forward with him at the helm.

Parappally was given an unheard-of 10-year contract under then-chair Anna DeBartolo without any real performance review. Parappally was also guaranteed a job for life with the board after the deal expired, according to a copy of his contract obtained by the Star last April.

Hunter has ordered the board to renegotiate the terms of his contract and complete an independent job appraisal by the end of May.

Concerns had been raised about Parappally’s fractious relationships with staff and some trustees, his disrespectful dealings with parents, and a “culture of distrust” the reviewers said he cultivated. He is also said to have ordered senior staff to spy on one another, and the board confiscated laptops to find the source of emails critical of him and how he was hired.

Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, left, and Charline Grant, right, shake hands following Hunter's press conference. At a special board meeting Wednesday night, York  trustees said they had already met the first deadline put forward in a letter from Hunter outlining her two-dozen directives, and were making progress on many others.

Many senior staff interviewed said they have no confidence in his leadership, according to the report. In fact, some interviewees said Parappally’s hiring was “the cause of, and the beginning of, much of the difficulty the board is facing.”

On Wednesday at Queen’s Park, Hunter told the Star she expects her directives to be followed “and implemented in a timely manner. That is my expectation. I will be monitoring the board’s progress very closely.”

When asked about the director, she said “in the directions I provided to the board, there are three areas that are important — that’s an immediate 360 (thorough) review of the director’s performance by an outside human resources expert, making sure the director’s contract aligns with other directors of education, and having a policy in place for the recruitment and performance appraisal of the director.”

This is not the first time a director has come under fire. Donna Quan, the former director of the Toronto public board, was also harshly criticized in a provincial report two years ago. She landed a provincial research gig with York University instead of finishing out her contract at the TDSB.

Sources have told the Star that Parappally had also been in talks with the province for a similar exit strategy before the report’s release, which fell through after he made unreasonable demands for a payout.

Parappally, who was hired in 2014, still has seven years on his contract. He earned $259,000 last year.

Parents and community groups lauded the report and Hunter’s response, but said the board must now step up.

“There are a lot of families that are hurting,” said Gilary Massa, of the National Council of Canadian Muslims. “The report confirms the absolute failure of the board to fulfil its own policies of equity and inclusion, as well as broader issues concerning leadership and governance. The findings are deeply troubling.”

“It’s especially important to note that current staff described working in a culture of fear and distrust which was fostered by the board’s director, J. Philip Parappally,” added Shernett Martin of the Vaughan African Canadian Association.