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York Preparatory Academy firings detailed in files

One of the former York Preparatory Academy employees suing the school was fired for poor performance, according to personnel records obtained by The Herald under the state's open records law.

The other former employee who sued the school last month was let go after co-workers complained that he harassed them, according to the records.

Tara Darby, the Rock Hill charter school's former academic director, and Bill Bruno, who taught middle school science, in separate lawsuits say YPA leaders conspired against them, spread lies and ruined their reputations before firing them for questioning authority.

Darby is seeking $8 million. Bruno is suing for $4 million.

The school's founder and board chairman, Craig Craze, has denied their claims. He said each went through an appeal process before the seven-member, public school board upheld the firings.

Both were fired by interim Managing Director Thomas Graves.

In Darby's termination letter, Graves questioned her "commitment to the mission."

"I have lost trust in your ability to be an effective administrator," he wrote.

He pointed to four areas where Darby's "decision-making and performance" were "unsatisfactory" - parent communication, follow-through on assigned tasks, "less than open and honest communication" and "repeatedly poor leadership and professional decision-making."

Lewis Cromer, a Columbia attorney representing Darby and Bruno, said Graves' decision to fire Darby "blindsided" her.

Graves had been in the job for less than two months when he fired Darby on Sept. 28, Cromer said.

"Who is he to judge?" Cromer said.

Darby is a highly qualified and effective veteran educator, he said.

Darby was a Northwestern High School guidance counselor when she was hired in May 2010 to be YPA's academic director, second in command after the managing director. Her annual salary was $67,000.

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.

State leaders have touted charter schools, which are generally free from some of the requirements that traditional public schools have, as viable options for students.

The personnel documents obtained by The Herald show at times a tension between Darby and school officials.

In a February 2011 email to school board members, Darby raised concerns about the curriculum and what she believed was a lack of communication between leaders and staff.

"Character-ed is in the charter," she wrote. "Why was it not planned for and why don't we have money to purchase a curriculum?"

"My biggest concern overall," she wrote, "is the secrecy and the fact that we are a public school - not private, and we are not transparent. Our staff, including myself, seems to be the last to know what is going on behind the scenes and it is unsettling to say the least."

In June, Corey Helgesen, managing director at the time, criticized Darby in an end-of-year evaluation. He accused her of poor communication and lack of follow-through.

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

Graves was hired as interim managing director in August.

Harassment alleged

Bruno was a popular teacher, according to Craze and several parents. He was promoted to lead the science department and given a $15,000 raise after the 2010-2011 school year, his first at YPA. His annual salary was $46,000.

In his lawsuit, Bruno accuses Graves of firing him in retaliation for a letter he wrote in September 2011 to the school board criticizing Graves.

Graves wrote on an S.C. Employment Department form that he fired Bruno for "sexual harassment issues with female employees."

Two unnamed co-workers in the fall of 2010 told school leaders that Bruno often made comments that were "inappropriate and unprofessional."

Helgesen, the former managing director, met with Bruno to discuss those complaints. In a November 2010 memo placed in Bruno's personnel file after the meeting, he was told to avoid any situation in which other employees may believe he was acting "unprofessionally personal."

A year later, several more incidents were reported.

Among the comments documented in Bruno's file are:

"Ooo, if only you weren't married;" and "Looking good as always, especially in that shirt!" (wink).

Cromer, Bruno's lawyer, declined to say whether Bruno made those specific comments.

"Any comment (Bruno) made, he never intended as any sexual harassment or any other harassment," Cromer said. "He's not married. It's common to say how pretty someone looks or little quips."

No one ever complained to Bruno or told him to stop, Cromer said.

The records show Graves met with Bruno on Oct. 4 to discuss his comments. In an email to Graves immediately after the meeting, Bruno said he recalled "flattering or social comments that I have both given and received that might be misconstrued. When anyone has expressed discomfort with things I have said, I have made the highest effort to correct the situation or apologize."

Bruno was fired later that day.