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York board seeks new leader after tumultuous two years

Job applications for education director due by Friday for candidate committed to equity, transparency.
Oct. 22, 2017
By Noor Javed

They want someone "transformational," someone committed to equity - it's mentioned twice in the job ad- and also inclusion, human rights, transparency, integrity and trust.

Someone, who will "walk the talk."

After a tumultuous two years under a director, fired after a damning education ministry report that found "feelings of alienation, marginalization and discrimination" flourished under his leadership, the York Region District School Board is looking for someone to set it on a new path.

The deadline to apply is Friday.

"A unique opportunity for an equity-focused transformational leader to inspire change organization-wide and champion the board's renewed commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion and human rights in an environment of transparency, integrity, trust and resolve," the ad says, in bold letters.

"This is both a challenging and an exciting mandate ... and calls for a highly skilled and respected leader with extensive knowledge of best practices in teaching for optimal learning," it continues.

Former director J. Philip Parappally was dismissed by school board trustees in April, after a Ministry of Education probe into the board found he was directly responsible for cultivating a "culture of fear" in the organization, "played favourites" and left staff feeling "intimidated and fearful."

The blistering report, also took aim at the process used to hire Parappally, and the unprecedented terms of his contract, including an unheard-of decade-long tenure and a job-for-life clause.

Education Minister Mitzie Hunter urged the board to implement 22 directives to address concerns, including an overhaul of the director selection process.

Over the summer, trustees and staff immersed themselves in updating the process. This included creating a committee of staff, trustees and community members to be involved in setting the terms for the process, hiring executive search firm Phelpsgroup to lead the search, and asking the public to take part in a survey.

"As a board, we have really tried to have a more open and collaborative process - as much as possible given the nature of a hiring process," said board chair Loralea Carruthers.

"We have had over 1,000 responses to our survey and the executive search firm has conducted dozens of individual and group interviews," she said, including all trustees, all members of the senior team, all community advisory committees, community groups, principals, teachers, support staff, students and anyone who reached out directly. "We have been very intentional in ensuring that the process is clear, collaborative and all the information is available on our website."

In order for a candidate to make the final cut, they will have to sit through two interviews with trustees, and require a vote from nine of the 12 trustees.

The aim, Carruthers says, is to make sure the process is as transparent as possible.

When Parappally was hired in 2014, the process was plagued with controversy: the recruiting firm quit halfway through, Parappally was allowed to bring notes into his interview, and, according to critics, lacked relevant experiences required for the job - yet continued to be supported by trustees.

In the ministry report, staff said they felt Parappally's unusual hiring was "the cause of, and the beginning of, much of the difficulty" the school board was facing.

Hunter, when asked last week about the York board's search for a new leader, said "it's an absolutely critical role in our school system.

"The role of the director has a tremendous influence on our system of education and I certainly would expect that this board in particular really brings forward candidates that really embody those values of equity, inclusion and transparency and brings that forward in the process of the recruitment, as well as in the selection," she told the Star.

Whoever takes the helm has a big job, as the board addresses the directives given to them by Hunter in the wake of the damning report, which also probed incidents of racism and Islamophobia at the board. She said the board "has work to do when it comes to equity and inclusion" and that's why she issued her orders.

"I've certainly been very clear with the board that I expect them to follow the directions and, more importantly, the outcomes that they are intended to achieve - that every student in our system wants to have a safe and inclusive school environment, where their well-being is at the forefront of our classrooms and our schools."

In general, the potential pool of directors is small.

Frank Kelly, of the provincial Council of Directors of Education, said York should be an appealing possibility because it's a big urban board that still has a good reputation.

An insider, or a director currently working at a mid-sized board, or a senior superintendent or associate director at other large boards are likely candidates, as are administrators with experience at the provincial education ministry.

But, he added, "you don't have a long list of people jumping up and down to be director." Part of the reason is that the pay is not that much higher than a senior staffer, despite the huge responsibility.

"York is appealing on a lot of levels," said Kelly. "You are working in a board that is progressive - and it is - and that has resources, which it does.

"It should be attractive to people. It has great resources, great buildings" and is a combination of both urban and rural areas.

"It's got a lot of factors that would make people want to apply … I hope the board gets a broad field to pick from."

The goal is to select a new director by the end of November. But any new candidate will require majority support from trustees - and approval from the ministry.

If he or she doesn't meet any one of those requirements, it could mean back to the drawing board for round two.