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School trustee candidate Spiros Papathanasakis. (Facebook)
School trustee candidate Spiros Papathanasakis. (Facebook)

A ‘big fish’ seeks a seat at the Toronto District School Board Add to ...

He is a formidable political organizer, the owner of a pub, a cancer drug research firm and a professional soccer club in Greece. Among his closest allies are former provincial ministers, city councillors and school board trustees.

And now Spiros Papathanasakis is running to become a school trustee – though many who know him say he already has significant sway over the affairs of Canada’s largest school board.

His deep connections within the board were on display earlier this year, when trustees and senior staff piled into the Marquis of Granby, a downtown pub. They were greeted by Chris Bolton, their host and the board’s chair at the time. Mr. Bolton worked the private, second-floor room in his silky red Chinese jacket, which he wore to mark the beginning of the Lunar New Year. Mr. Papathanasakis, the owner of the Church Street pub, mingled with guests, while drinks flowed.

At first glance, the pair is an odd coalition: Mr. Bolton is a left-leaning, soft-spoken Sinophile and Mr. Papathanasakis is a street-smart businessman and inner-city youth advocate whose pub caters to fans of mixed martial arts.

But during Mr. Bolton’s decade-long tenure at the school board – before he abruptly resigned in June – Mr. Papathanasakis became inextricably linked to Mr. Bolton, a handful of other trustees and several of the board’s highest-ranking staffers.

The 58-year-old businessman has no official role at the school board, but that has not prevented him from inserting himself into board business, 10 former and current board officials explained in interviews.

He usually met Mr. Bolton weekly for coffee and frequently spoke to trustee Sheila Ward, sources said. He has intervened in a major food-services dispute and he once joined Mr. Bolton and senior staff for part of an official TDSB trip to China for reasons that no one from the board has been willing to explain.

The fact that there is such a lack of transparency and no explanation as to why Mr. Papathanasakis has been able to involve himself in board business is symptomatic of the dysfunction and lack of proper governance at the school board. A forensic audit by Ernst & Young LLP described a “culture of fear,” where staff feel pressure by trustees not to follow policies and worry about losing their jobs if they disobey orders.

And although most of his interactions with the school board have been in the background, Mr. Papathanasakis now wants a seat at the table.

He is running to become one of 22 trustees in Monday’s municipal elections. His campaign in Ward 4 – a catchment north of Highway 401 that includes the Jane and Finch neighbourhood – is heavily resourced and well organized, his rivals said. “It’s like he’s running for mayor,” said Anthony Perruzza, one of the incumbent councillors for the area.

The ward is far from Mr. Papathanasakis’s roots in Cabbagetown, where he runs the Cabbagetown Youth Centre. The centre’s arts, music and sports programs for at-risk youth have received $3.2-million in funding over the past five years from the school board. His 40 years of working with children have garnered him a cadre of prominent and vocal supporters.“I think of Spiros as an angel,” said former Ontario cabinet minister George Smitherman.

Mr. Papathanasakis says there’s a much simpler explanation.

“I understand the value and importance of good relationships,” he said in an e-mail response to The Globe and Mail. “My relationships have served both my charitable endeavours and my business endeavours.”

One former trustee described having to “kiss the ring” to obtain Mr. Papathanasakis’s support for a particular initiative that was due to come before the board. Another high-ranking TDSB official described him as “the big fish” behind the trustees.

Kristyn Wong-Tam, the councillor for the downtown ward where Mr. Papathanasakis’s pub is located, was one of the only public officials, former or current, contacted by The Globe who agreed to speak on the record about what she called his “sphere of influence.”

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