‘A tone-deaf hire?’ Appointment of new education director for York Catholic school board sparks controversy

An amendment to the Education Act, passed last July, was hailed by the province as an equity-promoting measure and a chance to bring people of colour into leadership ranks.

But the first hire to benefit from the new provincial rule doesn’t represent a visible minority or come with more than three years of experience in the education field.

Robert Hofstatter was appointed by trustees of the York Catholic District School Board (YCDSB) as their new director of education, effective March 1. But this week’s announcement immediately spurred controversy, with a parents’ group raising concerns over Hofstatter’s credentials.

He has never been a principal or superintendent; in fact he has no public school experience, just three years as a teacher at a private school — a source of “great concern” for parents and community members involved with the publicly funded YCDSB, according to Charline Grant, system navigator for Parents of Black Children. The advocacy group is fighting racism at school boards in York Region and across the province.

“Our children don’t have the luxury to wait on someone to go through a learning curve,” Grant said, adding the amendment to the Education Act was in the best interest of the government, not the people who are most impacted by the education system. “I’m appalled that we’re here. This was such a tone-deaf hire.”

Seven months ago, the Education Act was changed to remove the requirement that directors of education must be supervisory officers that are qualified as teachers. At the time, Education Minister Stephen Lecce called the motion “an opportunity for generational change” and to hire racialized leaders. “Just four per cent of directors are visible minorities,” he said.

Since the amendment, that statistic hasn’t changed. Currently, three out of 72 directors of education in the province are a visible minority.

Hofstatter is a certified teacher and a member in good standing with the Ontario College of Teachers. Since 2018, he has served as the program head of computer science and engineering robotics at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto — a program he helped establish when he started working at the school after two decades in the banking world.

Father Andrew Leung, president of St. Michael’s College School, said the institution was “blessed” to have Hofstatter as a member of the school’s community for three years. “He has made a significant impact on our science department and has relentlessly worked to help his students reach their potential,” Leung said.

However, parents and community leaders are in a “state of shock” over the YCDSB’s decision to appoint Hofstatter, said Kearie Daniel, a founding member of Parents of Black Children. The group has spent almost three years working directly with trustees and school board administration to create more equitable outcomes for Black and racialized children. Daniel is also a parent of two children who attend YCDSB schools.

“It speaks to white privilege, it speaks to male privilege, and it’s an indication that the trustees are not equipped to do their jobs,” Daniel said. “It’s downright dangerous, extremely frustrating and heart-wrenching to know our children are in the hands of people who are not capable of making the right decisions for them.”

A petition last summer to stop the bill to amend the Education Act — warning the change would hurt marginalized communities — received 30,000 signatures in just one day. “Lack of education experience means that directors will not understand the anti-racist and anti-oppressive considerations necessary to align resources and supports across the organization to support marginalized student populations,” the petition reads.

Daniel said the Ministry of Education needs to step in and “level the playing field” by putting in place equitable parameters around the qualifications for trustees.

“These people have immense power. They’re making long-lasting, impactful decisions for our kids,” Daniel said. “There’s no reason in 2021 a school board the size of YCSDB should exhibit the lack of diversity that it does. We’re pushing for inclusive schools, but they are stuck.”

The YCDSB employs more than 5,000 instructional staff to teach over 54,000 students in 85 elementary schools and 16 secondary schools.

Hofstatter replaces former director Albert Falconi, who retired last Aug. 31, and whose salary was $ 235,200, according the 2019 Sunshine List. Board superintendent Mary Battista served as interim director.

Hofstatter was unavailable for comment on Thursday. Dominic Mazzota, chair of the board of trustees at the YCDSB, said Hofstatter was “chosen for his senior leadership experience in complex organizations” as well as his passion for excellence in Catholic education and his focus on innovation.

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“Mr. Hofstatter is an innovative, forward-thinking educator and a successful senior business leader who will use his unique combination of corporate and academic skills to help unlock new opportunities for staff, students and the broader YCDSB community,” Mazzota said.

Prior to taking up a teaching position three years ago, Hofstatter spent 20 years working in leadership roles in financial security services, software technology and advanced strategies for STREAM schools (Science, Technology, Religion, Engineering, Arts and Math). Notably, he was the vice president of global information security operation services at Scotiabank.

The Ministry of Education said system-wide actions are needed to break down barriers facing Black, Indigenous and racialized students so they are better supported to succeed and flourish in school. One of the most critical responsibilities of a board of trustees is to hire the director of education, the ministry added in a statement Thursday.

“Our aim is to expand the hiring pool so that school boards can better identify and recruit qualified and diverse directors of education” that possess the leadership, and experience to “ably run complex multimillion-dollar organizations, responsible for tens of thousands of staff,” Lecce said in an emailed statement.

The minister explained the first racialized interim director of education at the Toronto District School Board was Carlene Jackson, who was not an educator but spent decades serving in executive roles in public education and public service. Jackson replaced former director John Malloy last June, with the Toronto board of trustees’ unanimous support.

The trustees “requested that I waive the regulation to ensure Ms. Jackson was appointed as the interim director, which is precisely what I did,” Lecce said. Jackson has since left the post.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation, said the hiring of corporate candidates is likely another step in a “stealth move” to privatize the publicly funded education system.

“I don’t believe the public supports that. It would be a great shame if Ontario were to go down that road,” Bischof said. “Schools are not businesses, they are a public good.”

He said the ministry should not have changed the required credentials to become a director.

“I have no hope they will step in and do the right thing.”

TORONTO STAR