Former principal claims charter school wrongly fired her

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A former principal of Rochester’s Young Women’s College Prep Charter School claims the school wrongly fired her after falsely accusing her of failing to properly deal with inappropriate student-teacher contacts.

In a lawsuit filed June 28 in federal district court in Rochester, Barbara Fagan-Zelazny accuses the school of violating the federal Family and Medical Leave Act by terminating her while she was on medical leave she needed because of stress caused by the school’s allegedly false accusations against her.

YWCP officials did not respond to the Rochester Beacon’s request for comment.

Established in 2012, the nonprofit YWCP is part of a national network including some 20 all-girls college preparatory secondary schools. The school claims a 96 percent graduation rate and 100 percent college acceptance rate, success rates that Fagan-Zelazny maintains she helped compile.

Though the dispute legally centers on whether Fagan-Zelazny’s medical-leave absence exceeded or fell within a contractually allowed 90-day period, misconduct allegations against the ex-principal lurk prominently in its background.

Fagan-Zelazny disputes the school’s account of when her leave began, maintaining in court papers that she was not absent for more than 90 days and that she gave the school clear notice of her intent to return within the 90-day window.

Maintaining that Fagan-Zelazny clearly failed to return to work within that window, the school counts her absence as beginning at an earlier date.  

Court documents lay out starkly differing accounts by Fagan-Zelazny and former YWCP board chair Jennifer Allen of allegedly inappropriate contacts between unnamed students and an unnamed teacher or teachers occurring during the 2020-21 school year.

In her court complaint and in an accompanying affidavit, Fagan-Zelazny maintains that at an unspecified date in December 2021, she informed the board of misconduct allegations against three unnamed individuals who reported to her. The board at that time agreed with Fagan-Zelazny that “the egregious allegations required outside counsel to investigate.”  

Fagan-Zelazny ignored and even encouraged those inappropriate contacts on at least two occasions, Allen maintains in an email informing Fagan-Zelazny of her immediate termination.

In the missive—dated June 13, 2022—Allen claims that three separate investigations conducted between November 2021 and January 2022 found Fagan-Zelazny had mishandled the alleged inappropriate contacts.

The three probes “highlighted (Fagan-Zelazny’s) failure to take action to investigation-reported concerns of inappropriate interactions between a staff member and student; confirmed (that Fagan-Zelazny) knowingly failed to enforce the school’s policy regarding staff driving students in their personal vehicles; and revealed that staff were hesitant to go to (Fagan-Zelazny) with concerns or issues because they find (Fagan-Zelazny) to be unresponsive,” the email avers.

The communication goes on to describe a March 1, 2022, meeting between Fagan-Zelazny and the board’s executive committee at which Fagan-Zelazny allegedly “refused to engage in a substantive conversation regarding the board’s concerns” and “continued to appear largely unfamiliar with the investigation reports despite the serious issues addressed therein and the board’s prior questions.”

Fagan-Zelazny’s court brief casts the March meeting in a different light.

In the ex-principal’s account, the meeting came after Fagan-Zelazny had not only notified the board of the inappropriate contacts but had also made unsuccessful pleas to the board to help her deal with conflicts with Allen that sparked “a crisis of confidence in (Fagan-Zelazny’s) ability to lead under Board Chair Allen.”

Fagan-Zelazny’s court complaint states tensions between herself and Allen surfaced in 2021 while the school was attempting to right itself in a post-COVID environment. It describes their disagreements as centering on issues such as inadequate student transportation and a teacher shortage.

“During this period, Ms. Fagan-Zelazny repeatedly attempted to strategize ways to remedy

these challenges, including discussing these issues with the board. Unfortunately, Board Chair Allen was uninterested in discussing these realities, and instead seemed determined on undermining Ms. Fagan-Zelazny’s leadership,” the ex-principal’s court complaint asserts.

The brief goes on to describe a January 2022 meeting between Fagan-Zelazny and the board’s education committee during which Fagan-Zelazny showed the committee a letter that she planned to send to Allen detailing her concerns with the board chair.

Promising to arrange a restorative circle at which the principal and the board chair might work out their differences, education committee members convinced Fagan-Zelazny to not send the letter to Allen, the brief states.

According to the brief, Fagan-Zelazny asked board members in early February for an update on what progress the board had made in arranging the circle, but the promised event never took place. Instead, Fagan-Zelazny was unexpectedly ordered to attend the March 1 meeting.

At that meeting, Fagan-Zelazny’s court papers describe the ex-principal as being “blindsided by allegations of misconduct lodged against me, allegedly supported by statements apparently made during the investigations of staff misconduct I had initiated months earlier.”

The board followed the March 1 meeting with a March 10 letter detailing Fagan-Zelazny’s alleged misconduct.

Among charges leveled in the letter are that Fagan-Zelazny failed to take action after two teachers alerted her to inappropriate contacts between a teacher and a student and that Fagan-Zelazny had “approved of and encouraged” a November 2021 weekend fishing trip on which a teacher had taken several students.

“You believed the teacher had acted irresponsibly but did not take action against him or otherwise speak to him about the matter,” the letter chides.

Those accusations were “grossly and obviously misstating facts related to these investigations and Ms. Fagan-Zelazny’s role in them,” the ex-principal’s court brief counters.

Stressed by what the ex-principal maintains were serious but false accusations, the court complaint states that Fagan-Zelazny “experienced severe depression and anxiety with significant feelings of irritability, worry, distrust, anger, despair and episodes of panic. Ms. Fagan-Zelazny also experienced frequent crying spells and difficulty sleeping.”

According to the court complaint, the ex-principal took leave to deal with those symptoms on her physician’s advice and properly notified the school concerning the leave’s medical necessity.

Fagan-Zelazny maintains that her leave began March 28, 2022, which would mean her June 13 termination notice came within her contract’s 90-day window by more than a week.

Though she was upset, Fagan-Zelazny showed up for work in the week following the March 1 meeting and then took a previously scheduled one-week vacation; only then did she begin her sick leave, the ex-principal’s court papers contend.

Allen’s termination email counts Fagan-Zelazny’s leave as beginning March 11, a date that would have the June 13 termination notice falling two days past the 90-day window.

Fagan-Zelazny served as YWCP’s principal for approximately four years. She was initially hired in 2018 under a two-year contract. In June 2020, Fagan-Zelazny and the school’s then board chair, Laura E.O. Norris, inked a second contract, extending her tenure indefinitely.

Board members attending a July 10, 2020, meeting at which Allen presided as chair unanimously approved the employment pact.

Allen served as YWCP board until mid-2023. She no longer sits on the school’s board of trustees but currently serves as vice chair of the YWCP Foundation Board.

In the court action, Fagan-Zelazny seeks unspecified economic and compensatory damages for lost income, loss of professional opportunities and medical costs incurred to deal with “severe emotional distress, psychological injury, mental anguish, degradation, and embarrassment.”

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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