Sun. Mar 3rd, 2024
The State

A multi-million dollar early learning center that Richland 1 is building in Lower Richland cannot be designated as a public school building because the district hasn’t shown that the center “will be used for K-12 classroom instruction,” according to the state Department of Education.

State Deputy Superintendent John Tyler, who is also the department’s general counsel, sent Richland 1 Superintendent Craig Witherspoon a letter in December stating that the Vince Ford Early Learning Center, which is costing the district $31 million out of its general fund, is not considered an educational building.

The center is named for Vince Ford, a longtime Columbia community leader and former Richland 1 school board member who was elected in 1992 and served the district for 24 years. He died in December 2022 at 64 years old.

It’s unclear what the education department’s stance might mean for the facility, which has been under construction for about seven months. The department declined to discuss the issue beyond what’s in the letter.

But school board member Cheryl Harris said Richland 1 just needs to clarify its plans.

“We don’t foresee any hiccups,” Harris said.

In his letter, Tyler wrote that when a school district wants to construct a “public school building,” it must first seek approval of the state superintendent of education, according to state law.

“Based on (Office of School Facilities)’s review of this project, the District’s submission fails to establish that the building(s) being proposed for construction will be used for K-12 classroom instruction,” Tyler wrote.

The district’s submission documents show the facility will be an “early learning center” and a “family services center,” Tyler wrote. But not a school.

For this reason, it does not fall under the review of the state superintendent.

“The type of occupancy does not indicate ’E’ for Educational,” Tyler wrote. “According to the submissions made by the District, the building(s) may fall under the jurisdiction of (the Department of Social Services.)”

The district celebrated its groundbreaking in February 2023. Construction began in July. The targeted date of completion is in December 2024.

Plans for the center envision 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 will offer a full-day, full-year program for children as young as six weeks old up to five years old.

About 7 or 8 years ago, Harris said, young students were coming into the district further and further behind. That is what inspired the need for the center, she said. As the Lower Richland community is expanding, Richland 1 wants to get ahead of a growing need.

The facility would include not only classrooms, but also play spaces, a media center, a family clinic, a dental room, a food pantry, a café, a family engagement room and professional development rooms. The district also plans to offer mental health services and other support services out of the building.

Witherspoon is scheduled to present additional information on the center at the board’s meeting on Jan. 23, according to a Richland 1 spokesperson.

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