York trustee investigation cost $30K
Region taxpayers on the hook for legal fees billed for probe into ex-trustee’s racial slur
York Region taxpayers paid tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees for the public school board to investigate a former trustee’s use of a racial slur.
The York Region District School Board racked up a legal bill of nearly $30,000 to investigate whether former Georgina-area trustee Nancy Elgie referred to a parent using the N-word last fall, according to figures obtained through Access to Information legislation.
“A total of $29,978.49 was paid to a legal firm for their professional investigation services,” the school board said, but would not share any further information including the name of the law firm or the final report.
An audit of the board made public last week by the Ministry of Education, found that the board spent more than $600,000 in legal fees and settlement payouts between September 2016 and April of this year
Elgie’s investigation took place during that period and came in the middle of a tumultuous two years at the board, which was already struggling to deal with incidents of racism, trustee misdeeds and what many described as a culture of fear among staff.
Last December, a Star probe found that Elgie was under investigation by the board for using the N-word in referring to aBlack parent after a heated school board meeting. At the time, the now-former director of education, J. Philip Parappally, said the board had opted to bring in a third party to conduct an independent probe (into the alleged slur), dealing with the incident as an employee matter. Generally, complaints against trustees are dealt with through a code of conduct hearing — where fellow trustees determine how they should be censured and what penalties applied.
Eventually, after much public pressure, Elgie apologized for using the slur and stepped down from the $23,500-a-year position in February.
In March, the Star asked the board for all costs and reports related to the investigation, however, the board refused to disclose any information, claiming it was a record related to “labour relations or to the employment of a person by the institution” — even though Elgie was not an employee of the board, but an elected official.
The Star appealed the board’s decision with the provincial Information and Privacy Commissioner, and after mediation, the board agreed to disclose the total amount paid, but no other information regarding the investigation, even though the matter has concluded and its outcome was public.
Elgie admitted from the beginning that she had used the N-word, but said she “had misspoken.”
Her son, Stewart Elgie, told the Star his mother “accepted the investigator’s finding that what she said was a violation of policy, even though it was accidental.”
He said his mother’s behaviour was out of character and that she had earlier bumped her head.
Charline Grant, who filed a human rights complaint with the board after learning the slur has been directed at her, said it was “upsetting” to hear how much the board spent on its investigation.
“It speaks to their level of incompetence that they would take public funds, money that is meant for our children’s education, and spend it on an investigation that they already knew the answer to,” Grant said. “This was something overheard and by staff . . . and yet, they still did an investigation. It’s so upsetting.”
She said the board spent more on Elgie, than what she eventually settled for with them. She had originally asked for $20,000, but said she is unable to say how much she eventually got, due to a confidentiality agreement.
“They are running the board like a corporation, and not like a school board where kids come first,” Grant said.
“And then they want us to pay for school supplies. Wow.”
York parent Todd Silverman, who has taken the board to task for their misuse of funds around international travel, says he is “disgusted” at how much money was spent on “an investigation that ultimately resulted in the trustee admitting her misconduct. The board should have held the trustee accountable for the fees associated with this investigation,” he said.
The board’s policy does not require reimbursement from staff or trustees following an investigation, a spokesperson for the board told the Star.
Board chair Loralea Carruthers said the board was “required to conduct a thorough and independent investigation,” but would unlikely take that route today.
“We now have in place our integrity commissioner who will provide this service with a quicker turnaround in a more cost-effective manner,” she said. “We continue to look to improve upon practices of the past to ensure public confidence in our board and also prudent use of taxpayer dollars.”
After a series of Star stories shed light on dysfunction at the York board, the ministry launched an investigation last January, which resulted in a scathing report and led to the ouster of the director of education. The board is hoping to hire a new director by the end of this month.
Nancy Elgie’s actions first came under investigation in December 2016.
Nancy Elgie stepped down as a York Region District School Board trustee in February.