AIKEN — The abrupt resignation of a school leader widely viewed as a rising star in state education circles has exposed a bitter divide in this community, with allegations of racism, a threat of physical violence and a school board in turmoil.
A complaint sent to the board's chairman last month accused Aiken County Public School District Superintendent Sean Alford of threatening to stab a colleague in the throat. The person who filed the complaint was the recipient of the alleged threat and he captured a recording of the interaction.
Board members won't confirm that the complaint, and the recording, is the reason for Alford's decision to leave. But less than three weeks after it was reported, the former assistant superintendent at Dorchester School District 2 decided to step aside. He was named Aiken's superintendent in 2015.
In response, three board members have also resigned. The decision to allow Alford, who is black, to resign was approved by six of the district's members, all of whom are white.
Alford's departure has created uncertainty for the district of roughly 25,000 students, located in the middle of South Carolina's western edge, that was an emerging model in the state for its job-readiness initiative.
He was seen as a smart, innovative and effective leader, but someone who could also be brash when dealing with others.
On Tuesday, days after Alford's resignation was announced, anger at the board spilled over at a meeting, where first-time commenters, former Aiken school district students who are now parents, and local leaders came to his defense.
Alford's attorney Donald Gist, on Friday, said his client's decision to resign was to pursue other career opportunities and his reason for leaving was for that reason only. Alford and the district reached an agreement to go their separate ways, he said.
“As to any allegations, they’re just that: allegations," Gist said. "Dr. Alford will not, under any circumstances, address those allegations, and they had nothing to do with his personal decision to pursue other career endeavors.”
Aiken County's schools have embraced job-readiness as a guiding principle. Businesses have, in turn, renewed their focus on the district’s needs.
It was June 17 when Andrew Cox said he received a call from Alford to come outside and meet him in the parking lot.
Cox, then a director of technology at the district, thought the request was unusual, and conversations with the district's leader weren't always pleasant, so he stuffed a tape recorder in his shirt pocket and made his way to Alford's truck, he said.
Once there, Alford asked about emails Cox had forwarded on behalf of a retiring district employee, who was worried that district administrators weren't addressing her complaints about another employee, Cox said. Cox had sent the emails to board member Jason Crane.
At the truck, Cox said Alford asked him about the emails before delivering the threat: "I am going to stab you in the throat." Cox took a step back, saying "That's not nice," before clicking his recorder multiple times through his shirt pocket, worried it might have turned off while leaning against the truck, he said.
The recorder captured the comment about the stabbing. On Aug. 20, Cox sent an audio file along with a description of the encounter, to the personal email of school board chairman Keith Liner. The complaint and the audio clip were reviewed by The Post and Courier.
In an interview, Cox said because he had been called out to the parking lot alone, and was right next to Alford when he made the comment, it was more threatening than if he had just made it off-hand in front of a group of people. Alford, he said, never apologized.
Cox, who no longer works for the district, said he wasn't immediately sure what to do, but decided that he "couldn't in good conscience not say something" about the interaction.
Board members discussed the complaint at an executive session during a Aug. 27 board meeting. On Sept. 5, after another executive session during a special meeting, they voted 6-2 to accept Alford's decision to resign. One member, Ahmed Samaha, abstained. He is one of the three board members who have resigned.
Liner, the board chair, declined in an interview to comment on the complaint and whether or not it factored into Alford's decision to leave.
After 14 people spoke in support of Alford, it was Betty Ryberg who next stepped to a podium Tuesday night to face the board.
The superintendent could come off as arrogant and condescending, she said. His big personality had initially put her off. But Alford's ability to garner support for a bond referendum to fund school construction projects showed Ryberg, the mother of three children who graduated from Aiken High School, that the man was in it to help students. The plan, passed last year, will borrow $90 million to build two new schools and renovate four others.
In Ryberg's mind, it wasn't poor performance that was leading him to leave, she told the board. "They didn't like him, and I get it. But if somebody gets the job done, I just have to respect them," she said, prompting a 15-second ovation from many of the roughly 200 other people who packed the meeting at a high school auditorium.
Along with speculating the reasons for his departure, supporters of Alford have asked: Why did Cox wait two months to report the incident? They have pointed to Cox's relationship with Crane, the board member, as evidence of a possible conspiracy to set up the superintendent and get him out of his job.
The two are friends. And, after Cox left the school district in July, they now work together. Cox received the job offer before the incident with Alford, according to an email from his employer that he provided to The Post and Courier.
Tad Barber, one of the three school board members who recently resigned, said in an interview that he believed Alford was set up.
“I think it was a bad choice of words and I certainly don't condone what he said," Barber, who voted in favor of hiring Alford in 2015, said. "But I don’t see him being the kind of person to carry out any violence against an employee.”
Cox, in the interview, said he's known most of the board members for a long time and acknowledged that he and Crane are close. But he denied that his reason for reporting the incident was part of an effort to get Alford removed.
He said he did not even want to go public about his complaint but felt he had to clear up false rumors that were being spread about the allegations against Alford. He called Alford one of the smartest people he's ever worked for and said that the board's unwillingness to discuss the matter publicly has put him in an awkward position.
“This is why people don’t come forward," he said.