An audio tape of an alleged exchange between the Aiken County schools superintendent and a former school employee appears to be a factor in recent resignations involving the Aiken County Public School District and School Board.

Andrew Cox, a former Aiken County Public Schools employee, is in possession of an audio recording he said is district Superintendent Dr. Sean Alford threatening him in June, according to Augusta television news organization's broadcast Tuesday.

Cox, who was the school district's director of technology up until several weeks ago, agreed to be interviewed about the audio recording by the Aiken Standard on Wednesday afternoon; however, an hour before the interview, he canceled, citing corporate policy of his current employer.

The Aiken Standard asked Cox on Wednesday to provide a copy of the audio recording, but Cox did not respond to that request. The Aiken Standard intends to have the audio examined by an independent authority for its authenticity and any possible editing.  

At a special meeting on Sept. 5, members of the Aiken County School Board voted to accept the resignation of Alford, who was starting his fifth year with the district.

The board's acceptance of Alford's resignation angered a near full-house crowd that had attended the meeting at the district office.

When members of the audience asked if they could speak about the board's decision, board Chairman Keith Liner said, “No,” but the crowd vocally expressed their displeasure.

Liner apologized Tuesday for not allowing the public to speak at the special meeting, saying the format did not allow for public participation.

However, at the board's regular meeting Tuesday at Silver Bluff High, county residents filled the sign-up sheet to speak at the beginning of the meeting.

All but one man, who talked about the gun fired Tuesday at South Aiken High, voiced their support for Alford and their anger at the board's decision to accept Alford's resignation.

Some asked the board members about their personal motives in accepting Alford's resignation and mentioned a conspiracy to get the superintendent, whose last day with the district is Friday, to leave.

During public participation at Tuesday's meeting, Tara Reeder, a 1992 graduate of Silver Bluff High School, directly asked School Board member Jason Crane about his personal and professional relationship with Cox.

“I'm not trying to cause trouble because that's not my personality, but my specific question is for my own representative,” Reeder said. “Mr. Crane, the two involved in this current personnel issue are Dr. Alford and Andrew Cox. I understand that you and Andrew are best friends and that you recruited Mr. Cox to your Edward Jones office, and that is where he is employed.

“My question to you is, why didn't you recuse yourself because you were too emotionally involved and how can you begin to regain the trust of the Silver Bluff, Jackson Middle, New Ellenton Area 5 community? Thank you.”

Reeder's questions drew applause and cheers from the near full house that packed the Silver Bluff High auditorium Tuesday night.

When the Aiken Standard asked Cox for a response to Reeder's statements about his personal and professional relationships with Crane made at Tuesday’s public school board meeting, Cox did not respond to the request for comment.

Concerning the question of Crane recusing himself, then board member Ahmed Samaha asked at the special called meeting Sept. 5 if any board member should recuse himself or herself before going into executive session to discuss legal advice on an employment matter.

In a text Wednesday from Samaha, he wrote: “The lawyer said it was up to Jason to decide if he needed to recuse himself. He decided not to.”

In an email Wednesday, Crane responded to his not recusing himself, saying, “This is an employment matter and therefore I cannot legally give any comments at this time. I appreciate everyone who came out last night to share their concerns and plan to work hard alongside the administration to continue delivering excellence to all our schools.”

In another email, Crane said the “lawyer” in Samaha's text refers to the “District’s Counsel.”

Crane, who was elected to the School Board in November 2018, represents District 2 on the school board. The district includes primarily residents in the district's attendance Area 5, which includes Jackson and New Ellenton, and attendance Area 1, which includes Aiken.

When asked to confirm on the record whether he worked with or for Crane at Edward Jones, Cox wrote: “I can clarify that I have not worked for, do not work for and will not be working for Jason Crane. He is not, and will not be, my boss.”

Cox did not respond to a question asking if he and Crane are best friends and how long they have known each other.

On his LinkedIn page online, Crane listed that the attended South Aiken High School from 1998 to 2002, attended USC Aiken from 2002 to 2006 and attended the Mississippi College School of Law from 2006 to 2009.

On his LinkedIn page, Cox listed that he attended USCA from 2001 to 2005 and attended the Mississippi College School of Law from 2005 to 2008.

The LinkedIn pages for both men say they were members of the Federalist Society at the Mississippi College School of Law. According to its website at fedsoc.org, the society's “Student Division programming fosters a network of conservative and libertarian students eager to challenge the legal establishment as lawyers, faculty, judges, and policy makers.”

Moses Mims, who is the community chairman of the school district's 1 Cent Oversight Committee, also spoke during public participation, saying, “I believe that it was an organized, orchestrated conspiracy with Andrew Cox as a part of the conspiracy.”

The Aiken Standard asked Cox for a response to Mims' statement about a “conspiracy,” but he did not respond Wednesday by a requested 7 p.m. deadline.

Mims continued, saying, “In the information that I have been able to glean, Mr. Cox was going around the district office telling people that he had five votes on the school board to get rid of Dr. Alford. You tell me that's not a conspiracy.

“Dr. Alford, when he found out about it, he brought Mr. Cox into his office along with a couple of other people to witness the conversation. And he asked him to discontinue doing what he was doing.

“They left the office presuming Mr. Cox knew what the situation was and assumed he was not going to continue to make those types of statements within the district office, but that didn't happen. Mr. Cox continued to make those statements that with five votes we can get rid of Dr. Alford.

“Now the confrontation that Dr. Alford had with Mr. Cox subsequent to that, I don't know what happened. I know what I have heard. I don't think Dr. Alford was given due process in any way at all – not at all.

“As I said earlier, he felt that he was being put through hell for nothing. They simply didn't like the guy. I don't know why.”

When the board members returned from executive session at the school board's special called meeting Sept. 5, they voted 6-2-1 to accept Alford's resignation.

Board members Crane, Chairman Keith Liner, Brian Silas, Barry Moulton, Dwight Smith and Sandra Shealey voted to accept Alford’s resignation. Tad Barber and Rosemary English voted not to accept it, and Samaha abstained.

Before the special called meeting adjourned, Samaha and Barber resigned from the board effective immediately. English said she would resign Friday, which will be Alford's last day with the school district.

Although one speaker at Tuesday's meeting asked English to reconsider her decision to resign, English said would resign Friday.

Before the meeting adjourned, English asked to make a statement, saying, “Unfortunately, this will be my last board meeting. I could go into a lot of detail as to why, but I won't. I have no problem with the board members that are here. I do have problems with people that are not necessarily truthful and honest.

“There's no way under the sun that I can sit and continue to work when you are not honest, when you are not fair, when you are not doing the things that you know are legally right.”

After her statement, some people in the audience applauded and stood in support of English's decision to resign from the board. 

English, Samaha and Barber represent mostly residents in the school district's attendance Area 1 in Aiken. When English's resignation becomes final, the Aiken area will have virtually no representation on the Aiken County School Board until an election is held to fill their seats.

After the executive session Tuesday, the board voted to name King Laurence the school district's interim superintendent effective Saturday. Laurence currently is the district's chief officer of Administration.

After the meeting, Laurence said, “I think that the most important thing right now is that we begin the healing process. I think that my first responsibility is to try to provide a sense of calm and make sure that our school district stays on track, that we focus on our children, that we focus on continuing the good work that we're doing, to focus on high academic expectations, maintaining the safety of our students, maintaining fiscal responsibility and just staying on target and ensuring that we meet the needs of our children, our families and our communities.”

The vote for Laurence was 6-1 with English voting against the motion.

After casting her no vote, English said, “For the record, this is no indication of my lack of confidence in Mr. Laurence's ability, but because of the circumstances, I feel I have to vote no.”

After the executive session, the board voted officially to accept Samaha's and Barber's resignations from last Thursday and declare their seats vacant. Liner said he would send their letters of resignation to Cynthia Holland, the director of Registration & Elections for Aiken County.

In an email Wednesday afternoon, Holland wrote she had not yet received the letters from Liner. She wrote she had emailed Liner again, “and hopefully I will hear from him before the end of the day.”

In previous emails, Holland has said she cannot begin the process for candidates to file for the seats or to set the election before receiving the official resignation letters.

Editor's note: This item has been updated in conformity with the clarification published in the September 22, 2019 print and electronic versions of the paper. 

Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.