Former SDE director files whistleblower claim against Ybarra

One of state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s former directors says she was fired over whistleblower activities, after she alleged a “hostile work environment” within Ybarra’s State Department of Education.

Kelly Brady

Kelly Brady says she was ostracized by Ybarra and her deputies, placed on administrative leave and fired. Brady says all of these actions occurred after she cooperated with a workplace misconduct investigation.

“The above actions are temporally connected to (Brady’s) protected activity and strongly support a claim of retaliation under Idaho’s whistleblower law,” Brady’s attorney, Erika Birch, said in a Jan. 14 claim filed with Secretary of State Lawerence Denney.

Ybarra spokesman Scott Phillips declined comment Wednesday.

Brady’s filing — known technically as a tort claim — is not a lawsuit, but it is a precursor to a possible civil suit. If the state does not file a response within 90 days, or disputes Brady’s claims, Brady can then file a lawsuit.

From 2015 through 2019, Brady served as one of Ybarra’s high-ranking deputies. Brady was hired to head the SDE’s work on mastery education — which remains one of Ybarra’s top legislative priorities. In 2018, Brady took on additional duties, after Ybarra let go of Scott Cook, her department’s director of content and curriculum.

In the four-page claim, Birch says Brady consistently received “outstanding” performance evaluations, and also received informal praise from Ybarra, sometimes in the form of text messages.

But according to the tort claim’s timeline, this relationship deteriorated over Brady’s five months at SDE:

  • In March, after an SDE manager was placed on administrative leave, the Division of Human Resources investigated the matter on the SDE’s behalf. An investigator asked Brady about the work environment. “Answering truthfully, Ms. Brady indicated that she did feel as though the environment at SDE was hostile under the direction and supervision of Superintendent Ybarra, and that people were fearful of losing their jobs.”
  • By April, Ybarra began ignoring Brady, in public events and weekly director meetings.
  • In May, the SDE hired a co-director to share Brady’s duties. According to the claim, the new co-director, Todd Driver, had no experience in mastery, and was a close personal friend of Ybarra’s chief deputy, Peter McPherson.
  • In June, Driver began work at SDE. “Soon after he started, Ms. Brady was informed that Mr. Driver stated that he was ‘here to clean up Kelly Brady’s mess,’” according to the claim. Brady was reassigned only to the mastery program.
  • On July 22, Brady was placed on administrative leave, while the SDE investigated a complaint against Brady. This complaint alleged that Brady created a hostile work environment.
  • Brady was fired on Aug. 12. The claim quotes from Brady’s termination letter: “While the investigation has not concluded, this letter is to inform that it is in the agency’s best interest to terminate your employment from the State Department of Education.”

The claim does not specify damages. However, the claim says Brady has lost more than $38,000 in wages since August, and says she had planned to work at SDE through 2022, the end of Ybarra’s current term.

While the tort claim is a new development, Brady is not the first former SDE manager to publicly or privately criticize Ybarra. In 2018, during Ybarra’s successful re-election campaign, Cook wrote a letter to the editor of the Idaho Statesman, labeling Ybarra as an ineffective leader and blasting Ybarra for doubling down on an unproven mastery education program.

Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin contributed to this report.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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