With the Sept. 5 resignation of the Aiken County Public School District superintendent, followed by the resignations of several school board members, we keep hearing the question "Why?" as in "Why did they resign?" But our question is this: How did we get here? The answer is very slowly, and then all at once.
From most accounts, the majority of Aiken County residents have been busy over the last year, graduating kids and then getting them back in school this fall, albeit some are adjusting to new facilities due to rezoning and population shifts.
Along with other parents and school districts across the nation, we’ve been concerned about violence, school safety, discipline in our schools, school funding and teacher autonomy in the classrooms, to name a few.
Meanwhile, like the proverbial cooking frog, here we sit as the water reached its boiling point at the Aiken County School Board, without a superintendent and three board members.
Aiken County’s school district has seen, year over year, academic improvement. The district boasts the highest starting teacher pay in South Carolina, new school buildings with more upgrades to come, foreign language immersion programs, and military families are being drawn to our newly designated Purple Star school district.
How did we get to the point in this district – riddled with progress – where the 2019 South Carolina Superintendent of the Year and three board members would resign?
Rumors are rampant. But here’s what we know.
Longtime School Board member Rosemary English resigned Friday and in her resignation letter specifically called for an ethics investigation of the Aiken County School Board.
According to former school board members Ahmed Samaha and Tad Barber, who both resigned Sept. 5, the discussion in the Aug. 27 executive session that led to the superintendent’s resignation involved an audio recording of the superintendent verbally threatening a now-former employee of the district. There was no mention of any other incidents, Barber and Samaha told the Aiken Standard.
During that Aug. 27 executive session – which lasted around three hours – legal counsel indicated that the recording was not enough to terminate the superintendent so some members of the board turned up the heat on the superintendent, scrutinizing his daily administrative actions, Barber and Samaha said.
"It was death by 1,000 cuts," Barber told the Aiken Standard.
Barber and Samaha also said that other members of the school board knew about the audio tape for six weeks before it was presented to the full board. The former board members said unethical conduct on the part of the board members who knew about the tape but did not share the information with all board members is one of the reasons why they resigned.
The audio recording is being shared without scrutiny across multiple mediums in the CSRA. The Aiken Standard contacted the source of the recording, Andrew Cox, former technology director for the school district, and requested the original audio.
He thinks the public should hear it, and we agree. We have no reason to doubt its authenticity, but we will verify its authenticity before reporting it or sharing it as fact.
Superintendent Dr. Sean Alford was tough. He was hard on himself but came across as calm and unflappable. According to the Cox recording, it sounds like Alford finally flapped.
He expected a lot from his team and he championed them everywhere he went. His Citadel experience showed when he gave directives; he expected them to be followed.
It was hard to get media coverage in the schools because his policy was strict. Some good teachers left because they didn’t like his leadership and how he handled discipline in schools and some stayed because they believed in his vision.
Pockets of parents were irritated with rezoning, and as one of the first actions of the newly-elected school board members, they began reversing steps taken by the previous board. Other parents recognized the advantages to new schools and overcoming the environmental injustice in parts of Aiken County.
See, we’ve been there for every meeting since the November election. Watching the uncomfortable exchanges between school board members who would not agree on basic board actions; motions like approving agendas and going into executive session should not be controversial, but they were.
When it comes to demonstrating the fairness and ethics we expect of our students and administrators, the Aiken County School Board, like its superintendent, should be held to the highest standards. A school board should take seriously a claim that some board members had information on an agenda topic that was not shared with others on the board but, alas, that very claim didn’t even raise an eyebrow.
During the Aug. 27 meeting, high school government students were in the audience as part of a class assignment. They witnessed the dysfunction of the Aiken School Board meeting – how it was conducted and how poorly it was run.
These are not the examples of civility and local government in action that should be instilled in student leaders. Neither are verbal or physical threats toward one another. Regardless of the situation, bullying is not acceptable, neither from a superintendent nor from one board member to another.
This story is not going away, and it’s disheartening because it takes the attention off our children. In spite of it all, Alford’s team and Aiken County's students turned in outstanding academic scores and will be lauded when they are released.
Alford’s job performance does not appear to be in question; however, questionable ethics and poor decision making have no place on the Aiken County School Board or anywhere in the district. Our children's future is in your hands.
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.