Former director of scandal-plagued York school board seeks more than $2M after firing

Former director of scandal-plagued York school board seeks more than $2M after firing

The former director of the York Region District School Board — fired after a scathing provincial report cited his poor leadership and allegations he ordered staff to spy on each other — says his dismissal was unfair and that he is entitled to more than $2 million.

According to his statement of claim filed in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice, J. Philip Parappally is seeking $1.93 million in lost salary and car allowance over the remainder of his controversial 10-year contract, as well as unspecified damages for the loss of benefits and “moral damages” for “bad faith conduct” by the school board.

J. Philip Parappally, the former director of education for the York Region District School Board, was dismissed from his job in 2017 after a scathing provincial report cited his poor leadership.
J. Philip Parappally, the former director of education for the York Region District School Board, was dismissed from his job in 2017 after a scathing provincial report cited his poor leadership.  (Cole Burston / For Toronto Star File Photo)

Parappally also wants compensation “in an amount to be determined” for “loss of opportunity” because his unusual decade-long contract also included a job-for-life clause, providing him with a position as a senior superintendent in 2024 after serving as director, his claim states.

He is also seeking another $500,000, saying in his statement of claim that the board did not accommodate a disability — which he says arose out of the stress of the negative media attention and the report on the York board under his tenure — and instead let him go, in addition to a further payout for “intentional infliction of nervous shock.”

As director of the board, Parappally earned $276,000 a year, and his statement of claim notes he “had no disciplinary history whatsoever leading up to the termination of his employment” since he began working there in 2000.

Parappally was heavily criticized in the April 2017 report from two provincial troubleshooters who were sent in after numerous complaints that the York board was not properly dealing with incidents of racism and Islamophobia, and amid trustee and staff misbehaviour.

He was let go shortly after the report was released, and after then-education minister Mitzie Hunter ordered the school board to take steps to improve.

The provincial report detailed Parappally’s behaviour, saying his actions fostered a climate of mistrust, and that “a skilled leader would have risen above these difficulties.”

In its statement of defence, the York board said it had every right to terminate Parappally with or without cause — the latter providing a payout of one-year’s salary.

The board says the report outlined “very serious misconduct” by Parappally, including “sharing a confidential email with a community member, trading favours for the benefit of personal constituent agendas of individual trustees” as well as “cultivating an environment of distrust and intimidation,” according to the statement of defence.

The board also notes concerns that Parappally was “requesting that senior staff spy on other senior staff, including that a meeting be videotaped without the presenter’s knowledge” and “sending laptops of other staff surreptitiously for testing,” the statement of defence says.

An April 13, 2017 note from Parappally’s doctor was brief, saying he “should be off work until at least April 24 for medical reasons,” and the board’s statement of defence says “the medical evidence that he provided to the YRDSB did not indicate a disability.”

It goes on to say that “it is evident that Mr. Parappally reacted in a negative manner to the review report, for good reason. While his reaction may have involved a degree of stress, that does not constitute an illness, let alone a disability.”

In his statement of claim, Parappally says the provincial reviewers — sent into the board in February 2017 — were “overwhelmed” with submissions, and that the comments they received online “may not have been entirely reliable, as the reviewers did not take steps to confirm the identities of individuals providing information.”

He said the reviewers suggested training, an outside performance review, and that the board renegotiate his contract, while also improving the “transparency and accountability” in the board.

“At no point did the report or Minister Hunter state that Mr. Parappally’s employment should be terminated,” his statement of claim says.

Parappally also says personal animosities fuelled his firing, according to his statement of claim.

His lawsuit has become a focus for parents who have asked the board if there is any connection to it and the recent resignation of trustee Anna DeBartolo, who cited personal reasons.

Director of Education Louise Sirisko, when reached by the Star, said she cannot comment on a lawsuit.

“I want to assure members of our community and the public that the YRDSB is upholding its mission, its vision, its integrity” and the law, she said.

Since taking over as director a year ago, Sirisko said she and the board have worked hard to rebuild relationships with the community and with parents.

“We cannot comment on the specifics of a legal proceeding,” added board spokesperson Licinio Miguelo. “Our board has made significant progress since the ministry’s report in April 2017, and we continue to focus on the work of improving student achievement and well-being.”

Sirisko noted the board, and the director, have no authority to force a trustee step down.

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

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