Five trustees allege anti-Italian discrimination, halt meetings at York Catholic District School board
The race for Newmarket’s Catholic school board trustee is becoming mired in controversy as incumbent Theresa McNicol faces allegations of discrimination from some colleagues.
Five trustees from York Catholic District School Board — Maria Marchese, Maria Iafrate, Dominic Mazzotta, Rose Cantisano and Dino Giuliani — have formed a group alleging that McNichol has made comments of anti-Italian discrimination. Unable to get a public discussion about the matter, the trustees have decided not to attend the past two board of trustee meetings, preventing quorum and effectively stalling board business.
McNicol maintains that she has made no such discriminatory comments, and both sides agree the dispute relates to a motion she brought forward in November to put the Indigenous land acknowledgment before prayers on the agenda.
The group said the board has blocked their efforts for a public discussion, saying McNicol’s comments can only be talked about behind closed doors in an in camera meeting. But Marchese said they do not believe discrimination would fall under provincial privacy legislation, and the issue should be discussed publicly.
“This is an important issue that needs to be addressed, and it can’t be addressed behind closed doors,” she said, adding they hope the provincial government can step in. “We’re hoping the government will understand that, and the chair will stop putting up obstacles.”
The controversy comes with McNicol, a 25-year trustee currently presiding over Newmarket, Georgina and East Gwillimbury, running for re-election against Peter Fracassi. The board is guaranteed new faces in the next term, with four of the five of the group alleging wrongdoing deciding not to run again.
Marchese said discrimination occurred with McNicol asking for additional security at a board meeting in July before an agenda was posted. When questioned about it, Marchese said McNicol had indicated she feared for her safety, also responding in Italian.
The group believes the response was discriminatory with negative connotations. Marchese also highlighted that McNicol posted on Facebook English and Italian about intrigue to come at the Aug. 30 board meeting.
“Which is quite odd, given that she’s not Italian,” Marchese said, adding that security at meetings is also uncommon. “Fearing for her own personal safety has its own connotations … The comment was made to suggest physical harm to her by her accusers.”
But McNicol said she had a legitimate concern for her safety. She said it stems from a motion she made at a Nov. 30, 2021 board meeting, in which she wanted to have the Indigenous land acknowledgment be before prayer. Disputes following that have been an issue, she said. Only she voted in favour of the resolution, with six voting against it and three trustees walking out of the room.
“I am scared,” she said, adding she felt that another trustee had “lost it completely” at a meeting on another matter.
Everything got worse after she made that resolution on the land acknowledgment, she said.
“My motion was defeated. That was fine, I had no issue with it, I tried. But after that, my life became a living nightmare.”
McNicol later raised a procedural objection that no one called for those in favour of her resolution, meaning her support was not on the record. The subsequent discussion led to a code of conduct complaint against her, detailed in a report by Bruce Best of Ruthin Thomlinson LLP. The report said that multiple trustees felt there were longstanding disagreements, with Mazotta feeling disrespected by McNicol and McNicol feeling disrespected by the board.
“I do note that everyone I interviewed recognized that these underlying issues were affecting the efficacy of the board and hoped for a way that they could be resolved,” the report said.
The report goes on to detail the conversations and found there was a procedural error in the vote on the land acknowledgment resolution, but McNichol had not followed proper procedure in asking for an apology from Mazotta during the meeting.
Whether this amounted to a code of conduct breach would have been decided on by trustees had the Aug. 30 meeting gone ahead.
Mazotta said he did not intend to exclude McNicol, uncertain if she was present for the vote due to the hybrid virtual-in-person meeting. But he said he was not happy about the land acknowledgment motion.
“I found it very, very distasteful that we were putting an issue of that importance to our Catholicity as prayer in a debate of that sort,” the report quoted him as saying.
But the report does not get into the subsequent concerns of discrimination.
McNicol said the group has not agreed to mediation and that she thinks this is a matter would be best covered by a code of conduct complaint.
As for her public post Aug. 30, she said to put it out in English, Spanish and Italian to reach out to more in the community to attend the meeting and see the Bruce Best report.
“They continuously do these kind of stunts,” she said of the group making allegations against her. “Just to, I guess, make themselves feel important.”
Marchese said she thinks McNicol’s safety concerns are not justified and that no one at the meetings made any threats against her.
She described the board as a “toxic work environment,” and has decided not to run again due to issues unrelated to schools and education bogging things down.
“It’s not time well served to me, to be honest.”
But with most of the group not running for re-election, McNicol said she is hopeful for the future of the board.
“The future of the board will be very, very good,” she said. “It will be a more positive type of board, and I think the new board will be working together instead of against each other.”
Board chair Elizabeth Crowe described the group’s accusations as a “possible breach” by McNicol of the code of conduct, but that no formal procedure for it has commenced. She said the group also has not accepted third-party mediation.
“At this time of year, especially leading up to an election, board agendas are typically light so as to not bind the newly elected board in November,” she said. “There will be no disruption to the education of our students, as the board’s staff continue to oversee the operations of our schools.”
Challenger wants to address dysfunction
Peter Fracassi has only recently moved to York Region but said he felt compelled to run after reading and hearing about the allegations surrounding McNicol.
He said he has 37 years of experience teaching in Toronto, running educational programs for autistic students. He has recently served on the board of trustees for the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board. There, the board ruled him in breach their code of conduct last term, but he defended himself as being misrepresented.
With the disputes relating to McNicol’s conduct, he said voters should question giving McNicol another term after she has served more than two decades in the role.
“That’s a lot of instability,” he said. “I’m going to try at least to bring the best that I can.”
The teacher said his priority is to address busing, which he said is too long for students in Georgina and East Gwillimbury, up to 45 minutes for some. He added that he also wants to see more funding for special education programming.
But he said ending the bickering is critical.
“Let’s try to get people that are working together and putting the children first,” he said. “Not worrying about firing directors, code of conducts, all this other stuff.”
McNicol said she ran again because she “enjoys fighting for those that need help.”
She said she would fight for a new elementary school in East Gwillimbury, and that it be a STREAM centre that encourages excellence. She said that the new school should also address the long bus times experienced by some students.
She said she would also continue to hear our parents, adding regularly attends the school council meeting.
Fracassi said he would be different from the “same old, same old.” He said he would work to learn about the community here.
“I want to know the community, and I want changes to happen,” he said.
Parents can trust McNicol to address their concerns, she said.
“I’m a strong leader, a positive leader. You know you will get a return phone call or a return email from me.”
Editor’s note, Sept. 7, 2022: The article was edited to correct incorrectly written quotes from the trustee group. Marchese said she did not feel McNicol’s safety concerns were justified. Mazzotta had said he did not intend to exclude McNicol at the Nov. 30 meeting.