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Two former York Prep educators sue school

Two former York Preparatory Academy employees accuse the Rock Hill charter school's leaders of defaming them and firing them for questioning authority.

Tara Darby, once a York Prep interim managing director, and former science teacher William Bruno filed separate lawsuits Tuesday seeking a combined $12 million, more than twice the school's current operating budget.

They say school leaders conspired against them, spread lies and ruined their reputations before firing them.

Craig Craze, York Prep's founder and school board chairman, called the accusations "baseless."

"We will vigorously defend ourselves on this," Craze said. "The truth is on our side."

Darby was a well-regarded employee until she "reported what she perceived to be serious irregularities, violations of policies and laws relating to the operation of YPA" to her boss, according to her suit, filed in York County civil court.

The school's leaders conspired against her and passed over her for the managing director job for which she was filling in, according to the suit. Despite "exceptional evaluations," she became a target of the new director's "hostile agenda to retaliate," the suit says. She was fired in September.

Managing Director Thomas Graves didn't pay her the $78,000 annual salary she was promised and falsely accused her of improper conduct and improper treatment of a student's parents, according to the documents obtained by The Herald.

Darby is suing for breach of contract accompanied by fraud, defamation of character, interference of contractual relations and civil conspiracy. She's seeking $8 million.

Bruno was a committed, popular teacher with a good reputation until he wrote a letter to the school board raising concerns about management decisions and Darby's firing, his suit alleges.

Soon after, he was fired and Graves spread false accusations that ruined his reputation, according to the suit.

Bruno is suing for defamation of character and civil conspiracy. He's seeking $4 million.

Darby and Bruno name several defendants, including: York Prep, Graves, Craze, Corey Helgesen, the former managing director, and Richard Walker, a consultant with the firm Aspen Partners, which manages administrative matters for the school.

Craze said he couldn't discuss specifics because of personnel laws, but he said Darby and Bruno each went through an appeal process after Graves fired them.

The seven-member, publicly-elected school board upheld Graves' decisions, Craze said.

"We went through a very specific process to vet these things out," he said.

Drawn-out cases

York Prep is the county's only public charter school available to any student in grades K-9. It opened in August 2010 with a focus on parent involvement.

The school of roughly 700 students requires students and parents to sign a contract pledging good behavior and commitment to the cause. Parents are expected to engage and volunteer when possible.

The school's operating budget the first year was roughly $2.7 million, according to Craze. This year it's about $4.6 million.

Darby was hired as academic director. Bruno was a science teacher, who performed well enough to be promoted to middle school lead teacher and science department chair in his first year.

Darby's lawsuit alleges she first reported policy violations to former Managing Director Helgesen and school board members in early 2010, but nothing happened.

Her complaint doesn't specify what those violations were.

Columbia Attorney Lewis Cromer, who represents Darby and Bruno, declined to discuss the cases.

When Helgesen stepped down the following year amid parent complaints about his leadership, Darby was tapped to lead until a temporary replacement could be found.

While Darby was on her honeymoon over the summer, Walker, the Aspen Partners consultant, sent a message signed by Darby to the staff saying that York Prep would use the services of a "counseling agency in which he had a financial interest," according to the suit.

Darby's signature was forged, the suit says.

After Darby complained about it, the documents say, she became a target of "animosity and venom" from Walker and Craze.

Complaints of religion

Darby and Bruno allege that school leaders are Mormon and discriminate against employees who aren't.

"Helgesen, Walker and Craze ... are members of the Church of Latter-day Saints, who have seen to it that the Mormon Church and its members have been given priority at the school in terms of teachers and administrators," the suits allege.

Craze dismissed the charge.

"That's categorically not true," Craze said. "YPA has no religious affiliation. We don't even talk about what people's faiths are. It's against the law to ask people about their faith."

The school "is about like-minded parents who want a great education for their kids," Craze said. "The Mormon conspiracy is so far out in left field and absurd, it's laughable."

The suits are expected to take months, Cromer said. If they go to trial, it could be a year before the groups face off in court.