Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles.
The Aiken County School Board was pockmarked by quarrels, apparent tribalism and targeted accusations in the months leading up to the resignation of three board members and the abrupt departure of Dr. Sean Alford, the former public schools superintendent, emails obtained by the Aiken Standard show.
Correspondence between the board members – Chairman Keith Liner, Vice Chairman Dwight Smith, Sandra Shealey, Jason Crane, Brian Silas, Barry Moulton, Rosemary English, Tad Barber and Ahmed Samaha – show repeated concern over procedure, transparency and internal turmoil.
The Aiken Standard acquired the trove of emails via a Freedom of Information request. Hundreds of emails and conversations were reviewed; follow-up interviews were conducted over the past weeks.
'Lack of respect'
When Alford left the school district in mid-September – a sudden flight that followed allegations of severe threats made to an employee – Samaha, Barber and English followed. Their successive resignations were effective that same month.
Before resigning, Samaha emailed Liner with worries "about how" fellow board members Smith and Moulton "are responding to Dr. Alford."
"I continue to have concerns about the lack of respect and civility the board shows each other and district leadership," Samaha wrote in July. "I am growing increasingly tired of having members of the community ask me about our behavior and lack of ability to be respectful as well as how embarrassed they are for me in terms of the way some members of our board treat others."
"It's obvious that some have an agenda but I would appreciate it if I wasn't embarrassed by my colleagues," he continued in the same email, which he eventually forwarded to Barber, Shealey and English.
Responding to Samaha, Chairman Liner took the blame: "This is all on me."
"Please give me a nudge to keep me honest we (sic) you see something getting out of hand," Liner wrote further.
In an interview last week, Liner acknowledged concerns that "maybe some people" were acting outside their realm of responsibility. He said, as a new board leader, he had to learn how to wrangle debate and rein in meetings; newly elected members have to figure out their roles and lanes, too.
"We've had some interesting discussions," the chairman said. "I wouldn't say heated or anything like that."
Barber, who resigned Sept. 5, on Tuesday said there were times when voices were raised. But Liner has denied there was yelling or cursing or fighting among board members.
Smith, the second in command, in an interview last week said they worked and functioned as a board up until the resignations.
"On any board there's going to be disagreements," Smith said. He noted several of the board members were friends before being elected.
Disdain or admiration
Disdain or admiration for Alford, who joined the district in 2015, seemed to drive board members apart from each other. Both Samaha and Barber on Tuesday recognized that.
"Without a doubt," Samaha said.
"No question," Barber said separately, describing the board as a political mess, a microcosm of Washington, D.C.
In August, Barber emailed the group about what he perceived to be "last minute" changes to a meeting agenda.
"Keith, you know that there are issues within the board and this just adds to that," Barber wrote. "It is quite suspicious the way this is being done without any input from the board or from hearing the discussion from the district's attorney."
After getting a response from Liner, in which the chairman explained what was going on and said he was not trying to catch anyone off guard, Barber replied with another barbed email. His words were pointed, using phrases such as "will create more distrust," "animosity among the board" and "ulterior motive."
"They had a goal of something," Barber said Tuesday, "whatever that may have been."
In his resignation letter, Barber said the board had driven a wedge between itself – "it has become quite burdensome to get meaningful policy passed," he wrote in part. Similarly, Samaha in his resignation letter said the board's direction was not congruent with his values and vision.
In a March 22 email, Moulton apologized for "caring more about teachers and students, and the related codes of conduct and discipline policies, than the misguided policies that a school board must follow."
Samaha that same day asked board members to "relax with the tone and judgements" or implications that only some people care about problems at hand.
A month prior, Moulton emailed the board urging members to work through "all internal board issues" quickly in order to afford greater, unified attention to students, teachers and parents. Liner agreed. Samaha responded and complained about transparency.
In July, Moulton emailed Liner and Smith suggesting questions of his had gone ignored. And in May, Moulton emailed Crane, warning him that teachers thought he was "getting dangerously close to Ahmed's 'rah rah' level with Alford news."
A school visit from the Carolina Panthers was being discussed.
"He has enough 'cheerleaders'! Paid or otherwise," Moulton wrote, ending the thought with a frowning emoji. "And … he is quite the semanticist and propagandist. That's from me!" A smiling emoji is inserted there, concluding the email.
When reached for comment, Moulton redirected questions to Liner. As chairman, he said, Liner serves as spokesperson.
In the same interview, Liner said he tried his best in terms of transparency – he'd rather overcompensate with openness than scurry information away from the public eye.
"So I didn't think transparency was a problem," he said. Various emails examined by the Aiken Standard align with that sentiment.
Liner also said personal agendas were not in play, despite the handful of accusations. While each board member represents a certain district – and those district-specific needs might be brought up often by that representative – there wasn't any underlying maliciousness, he said.
He added that as a North Augusta-area representative, he is quite passionate about topics that come from or could adversely affect that region.
Very few exchanges with Rosemary English, the third board member to resign in September, were collated in the Aiken Standard's formal information request.
Call for ethics probe
The emails reviewed flesh out comments made and actions taken by both the now-resigned board members and those in the greater Aiken County community who questioned the district's mutual separation from Alford.
English, a retired teacher, upon resigning called for a thorough ethics probe into the governing school board. That same month, 12 Aiken-area leaders and officials urged the S.C. Department of Education to investigate potential "ethical issues and conflict of interests."
The letter – two sentences addressed to S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman – did not offer specifics about any alleged violations or misconduct.
The signatories included Aiken City Council member Ed Girardeau; former Aiken County Council member Scott Singer; prominent Aiken resident Betty Ryberg; former Aiken Standard publisher and school district liaison Ellen Priest; Barber, who's also involved with real estate; and Samaha, who's also the vice chancellor of student affairs at USC Aiken.
The state Education Department on Tuesday declined to specifically comment on the matter. But because school board members are elected officials, the issue would be largely outside the department's purview.
The S.C. Ethics Commission, in response to several questions from the Aiken Standard, in early October said it could neither confirm nor deny an investigation into the board.
In exchange for his voluntary resignation, Alford, the former Aiken County Public Schools superintendent, secured a payout as well as a host of agreements between him and the school district he once oversaw.
According to the arrangement, Alford would receive a lump sum payment of more than $220,000 and compensation for a maximum 45 unused vacation days and any unused sick leave. The district promised to make an $18,255.01 payment into the retirement system, and the school board and Alford agreed not to make "disparaging comments publicly" about one another or the public school district.
In a full-page ad placed in the Aiken Standard earlier this year, more than 1,200 people collectively thanked Alford for his service to the county and education as a whole.
Among the extensive list of supporters were Aiken City Council members Lessie Price and Gail Diggs; the Rev. Paul Bush; former Aiken County School Board Chairman Levi Green; state Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken; Aiken County Council member Willar Hightower; and Samaha, Barber and English.
The ad was paid for by the Concerned Ministers Fellowship.
Staff writers Larry Wood and Dede Biles contributed to this report.