State Superintendent Ellen Weaver has asked the Office of the State Inspector General to examine Richland 1’s plans for a multi-milliion dollar early learning center.
In a letter sent to the Inspector General’s Office Monday, Weaver said construction of the $31 million Vince Ford Early Learning Center was started before the district received proper authority from the state Education Department. Construction also continued after the department raised concerns about the center’s permitting in December.
The December letter from Deputy Superintendent John Tyler informed Richland 1 that the center could not considered a public school building because it hadn’t shown intent for K-12 classroom instruction. To be considered as such, the district would’ve need prior approval from the state education department, per state law.
Initial plans for the center envisioned a 71,000-square-foot “state-of-the-art” facility on Rawlinson and Caughman roads in Lower Richland, with the capacity to serve 312 students. The center was to offer a full-day, full-year program for children as young as 6 weeks old up to 5 years old.
The Vince Ford Early Learning Center was approved in December 2022. Construction began in October 2023. On Friday, Richland 1 Superintendent Craig Witherspoon announced that the district was stopping construction to address concerns and “ensure compliance” with the South Carolina Department of Education and Richland County.
“Our belief in the need for Vince Ford Early Learning Center and our commitment to this project have not wavered,” Witherspoon said in a press release. “We look forward to resuming construction once these matters have been addressed.”
On Friday, Witherspoon shared his intentions to suggest adjusting the age range and grade levels of the students the center would serve. Instead of a center for 6-week-old babies to 5-year-old children, Witherspoon said he will recommend the center for 3-year-old kindergarten through second grade, according to a press release.
Weaver raised concerns about those potential changes.
“According to reports in The State newspaper, the District now plans to seek to modify their stated purpose for the building yet again in order to try to obtain a school building permit from the Department,” Weaver wrote. “This proposed modification is insufficient to address the questions that must be answered regarding the District’s intent and activities to date.”
Weaver also said that the work stoppage and the district’s potential redesign of the center may have resulted in the lost of “substantial public funds.”
Richland 1 was notified Monday of Weaver’s request for an inspector general’s investigation.
“We welcome any inquiry from the Inspector General’s Office,” the district said in a statement. “Richland One continues to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, as evidenced by 35 consecutive years of national and international awards for excellence in governmental accounting and financial reporting.”
According to the district, it had been exploring the creation of an early childhood center for nearly two decades, to improve access and student outcomes.