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York parent fighting to serve as trustee on board she accuses of discrimination
April 24, 2019
Isabel Teotonio

Charline Grant believes the York Region school board has problems -- but she’s determined to help solve them.

In a recently filed human rights complaint, the parent activist accuses trustees of anti-Black discrimination and of punishing her for being an outspoken critic of the scandal-plagued board.

Charline Grant is running for trustee in a York Region byelection Thursday, a month after launching a human rights complaint against the school board, alleging discrimination. She was runner-up in the last municipal election and believes she should have been appointed to the vacancy left by the sudden resignation of Anna DeBartolo.

Still, she says she wants to be part of the board to enact positive change, which is why she’s running for a vacated trustee position in a byelection Thursday in Vaughan.

“I know what the challenges are,” says Grant, noting she gets “at least” two calls a week from parents of kids experiencing issues such as anti-Black racism, Islamophobia and bullying in school and don’t know what to do. “I want to be on the board to be part of implementing changes that will benefit residents.”

There are 13 candidates, but Grant has the highest profile. She’s largely recognized as the catalyst that brought about change at the board a few years ago, after she spoke out about racism her children endured in school, and was herself called the N-word by a then-trustee.

The seat, for Wards 1 and 2, was vacated after the sudden resignation in January of Anna DeBartolo, a month into the new term. Rather than follow past practice and appoint a replacement or the runner-up from the last election -- in this case Grant -- the board voted for a byelection pegged at $177,424, sparking outrage.

In a complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, Grant alleges York Region District School Board “engaged in discrimination in the area of employment and/or services on the basis of my colour” by failing to select her, as runner-up, for the vacancy. She says she “experienced discrimination and/or reprisal.”

“They see me as a disruptor,” Grant told the Star. “It’s me and my voice that they don’t want.”

The tribunal is reviewing the complaint -- the allegations haven’t been proven. It hasn’t delivered the complaint to the board, but the Star provided it with a copy. The board -- the third largest in Ontario with 123,000 students in some 200 schools -- has 12 trustees earning about $23,000 a year, and whose responsibilities include making policy and overseeing a $1.4 billion budget.

YRDSB spokesperson Licinio Miguelo says “we cannot discuss any legal proceedings in public,” but if necessary, the board will respond “through the appropriate process.”

“Over the last two years, the (board) has made great strides in advancing equity, inclusion and human rights,” he added. “It has become embedded as a priority for our board and we have established … an in-house arms’ length Human Rights Commissioner’s Office.”

Employment lawyer Daniel Lublin, who doesn’t represent anyone involved but handles human rights cases, says it’s questionable whether Grant can argue discrimination in the area of employment because he doesn’t believe trustees are considered employees. But her application may have grounds because she also alleges discrimination on the basis of goods, services and facilities, which he believes would include school boards.

At Grant’s Kleinburg home, which she shares with her husband and children, aged 8, 14 and 17, she says it was important to hold the board accountable for its byelection decision adding when she believes something is wrong she feels compelled to speak up.

“It’s very emotional, time-consuming and it’s tough,” says Grant, a real estate agent. “But some fights you have to fight.”

Grant made headlines in February 2016 when she filed a complaint with the human rights tribunal alleging her son faced racial discrimination at school, prompting other parents to speak out about anti-Black racism and Islamophobia. In the fall of 2016, trustee Nancy Elgie referred to Grant with a racial slur following a board meeting. After weeks of public outcry, Elgie stepped down, saying a head injury caused her to mix up her words.

There were also allegations of misspending, staff misbehaviour and a culture of fear at the board. The ministry of education intervened and in April 2017 issued a scathing report that said trustees were unaccountable and lacked a basic understanding of their roles. It also found “feelings of alienation, marginalization and discrimination” among parents and staff, and was critical of then-director J. Philip Parappally, who was dismissed and replaced by Louise Sirisko.

Also that spring, the board settled the human rights complaint with Grant and publicly apologized to her and the Black community saying its response to complaints had been hostile, dismissive and arrogant. It also said it failed to appropriately respond after the racist slur.

In the October 2018 municipal election, six candidates ran against DeBartolo, the incumbent. In Ward 1 (Maple and Kleinburg) and Ward 2 (Woodbridge West), 9,801 votes were cast. DeBartolo won with 4,437 votes, or 45 per cent of the vote, while Grant placed second, with 2,161 votes, or 22 per cent of ballots cast. But DeBartolo then resigned on Jan. 9, citing “personal reasons.”

According to a board report, trustee vacancies are filled by appointment, tapping the runner-up or through a byelection. Since 1991, there have been eight previous occasions when it had to fill a vacancy. Only once, in 2017, was there a byelection -- to replace Elgie -- and that decision was made after public consultation. The most recent vacancy, last June, was filled by the runner-up because there wasn’t time for a byelection just four months before the October vote.

DeBartolo’s resignation was the subject of a Jan. 10 board meeting. That morning, Grant says Sirisko called her.

“It was clear to me that Director Sirisko wanted a byelection,” says Grant in her tribunal application. “The director also called Black community leaders and members to explain to them her opinion -- in an apparent effort to prevent backlash once they became aware she was deviating from past procedure.”

Grant says Sirisko swayed the board’s votes by stating there was a “healthy reserve” of funds for a byelection. The board voted seven in favour, and four opposed, to hold a byelection.

In a media statement at the time, board chair Corrie McBain said, “trustees carefully considered the options and determined that holding a byelection would provide the residents of Vaughan with a fair process to democratically select their representative.”

But Julie Stevens-Shoman, of advocacy group YRDSB Kids Deserve Better, was “really surprised” by the decision because Grant is well-known, byelections have a low turnout and a hefty price tag.

“It seems like an awful lot of money so soon after we’ve just had an election,” she says. “The board is having issues with diversity, with accountability. It seems to me that Charline is a fantastic option to be able to hold the board accountable on those issues.”

Todd Silverman -- a former trustee candidate in Thornhill -- says Grant, as runner-up, should have been tapped for the job since she was far ahead of the third place finisher, who got 1,200 votes, or 12 per cent.

“With the government changing the financing of school boards, this was money that didn’t need to be spent,” he says.

Joe Volpe, publisher of the Italian-language newspaper Corriere Canadese -- many of its readers live in the area -- attended a board meeting in late January, urging trustees to reconsider their “insane” decision to hold a byelection.

The former MP and federal minister says “everyone” he spoke with in the Italian community favoured appointing the runner-up, adding “I don’t think I heard one person (support a byelection).”

“It’s a colossal waste of money,” he says.

Grant has been busy canvassing -- there are about 43,000 electors in Wards 1 and 2 -- and says many people aren’t aware of the byelection, or of her recent human rights complaint.

“I want to help (the board),” she says. “I’m not just someone who’s pointing the finger … Here I am fighting to help (the board).”

Also running are Imran Ahmad, Carol Chan, Matthew Forbes, Marisa Giulietti, Miranda Goldberg, Nadeem Mahmood, Michael McKenzie, Nagina Parmar, Hiten Patel, Deven Sandhu, Vince Scaramuzzo and Richard Wu.