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Editorial: Secrecy increased racial animosity, turmoil in Aiken schools

Sean Alford .jpg (copy) (copy)

Sean Alford resigned under pressure as superintendent of the Aiken County Public School District. Here, he participates in a panel discussion in January for a "Minimally Adequate: Fix South Carolina Schools" event hosted by The Post and Courier. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

School officials across South Carolina are watching the turmoil engulfing the Aiken County Public School District following the sudden departure of Superintendent Sean Alford and the resignation of three school board members. The question is whether they’ll take away the right message from this ugly mess.

As The Post and Courier’s Stephen Hobbs reported, Dr. Alford was “widely viewed as a rising star in state education circles.” His departure came after a former employee recorded the superintendent threatening to stab him in the throat and “has exposed a bitter divide in this community, with allegations of racism, a threat of physical violence and a school board in turmoil.”

The board accepted Dr. Alford’s resignation “consistent with the terms of his contract” after a three-hour executive session on Sept. 5. That followed a three-hour executive session on Aug. 27 to discuss, among other things, information concerning the Office of District Superintendent and “receipt of legal advice” on “an Employment Matter.” The board members resigned in protest of the Sept. 5 decision, saying the other board members and the former employee engaged in a conspiracy to get rid of the superintendent.

Maybe those former board members are right, and maybe community members are right to be angry that six white board members forced out a black superintendent. Or maybe they’re just sore that they didn’t get their way and are inciting the public with a false narrative.

We’ll probably never know. And here’s the important takeaway for school board members (and other local elected officials the state over): It didn’t have to be this way.

In an information vacuum, rumors thrive. And rumors breed anger — in this case anger that could easily undermine the public and parental support that schools need to do the crucial and difficult job of educating the next generation.

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Imagine what could have happened if the school board hadn’t been so secretive. If board members had come out of the Aug. 27 executive session and explained what they had been discussing and what they were considering. If they had held the Sept. 5 meeting in public. Better yet, if both meetings had been held in public.

At this point, a lot of current and former elected officials are protesting: They couldn’t hold those meetings in public; it’s against the law for them to talk about the discussions. Indeed, one school board member even wrote to a constituent that he couldn’t answer her questions about the firing because “This is an employment matter and therefore I cannot legally give any comments at this time.”

But that’s not true. South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act does in fact allow boards to hold such discussions in private, and of course an elected official always has the right to not answer questions. But there’s nothing in the law that required the board to hold either session in private, and certainly nothing that prohibits school board members from talking about the situation.

Section 30-4-70(a) of the S.C. Code of Laws says a public body “may” meet in secret to discuss disciplining or firing an employee or to receive legal advice. Not must. May. And Section 30-4-40 says a public body “may but is not required to exempt from disclosure” documents related to proposed contractual arrangements and even “Information of a personal nature” — which local governments love to claim (incorrectly) lets them hide information about any employees.

At this point, there’s probably no undoing the damage that has been done in Aiken County. But school boards — and city and county councils — across the state have the power to prevent similar situations. We hope they will.

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