Controversial R1 center construction was a ‘massive failure,’ SC education department says

Richland 1 started work on its $31 million early learning center in Lower Richland with “no approval or permit” even though the state Department of Education told the district what it needed to do, according to a department engineer.

“The fact that any kind of work happened with no approval or permits is a massive failure on their part,” Will Bonnarigo wrote in an email exchange with a Richland County official. “They had been told numerous times by myself, and my management, what it would take to get everything approved and they did not do their due diligence.”

The January email exchange was obtained by The State Media Co. through a public records request. Richland 1 started construction on the Vince Ford Early Learning Center in October 2023. Work was paused in Jan. 19, more than a month after the state Education Department said the building could not be considered a school because it would serve infants, and after Richland County officials issued a stop work order.

The suspended construction is costing taxpayers $2,300 a day, the district has said.

In the email exchange, Bonnarigo said that Richland 1 knew that the center had not been approved yet, and were told to pause the project.

The district failed to submit materials to various agencies so that they could work together to approve the project, Bonnarigo wrote. Instead, the district “kept a lot of people in the dark,” and “considered themselves above” the process.

“I have been working with the district and architects on this project since May and they have shown a gross lack of patience, respect for our processes, and have been downright dishonest to me during that time,” he wrote.

A stop work order from Richland County, which was also obtained by The State, said that the construction activities at the Vince Ford Early Learning Center site on Rawlinson Road violated state and local code, having no approved permits or plans, and no record of the inspections required.

According to an email from Mike Zaprzalka, director of building inspections for Richland County, the order was posted at the site the morning of Friday, Jan. 19.

But at a school board meeting the following week, Richland 1 Superintendent Craig Witherspoon said the district stopped construction of its own volition, not because of the posted stop work order.

At the same meeting, Richland 1 Chief Operations Officer Bob Grant acknowledged that the district had begun construction before receiving a permit. He said it was because the state Education Department had indicated that it would indeed issue a permit, which he said was common practice.

Witherspoon asked for another permit from the department for the project based on a change of the project’s scope last month. While the original plans for the center intended it to serve children as young as 6 weeks old, the school board voted to change the student age range from kindergarten to second grade.

His request was denied, according to a Feb. 8 letter from John Tyler, the state education department’s deputy superintendent. Granting a permit now would be “improper,” Tyler said.

State Superintendent Ellen Weaver asked the Office of the Inspector General to investigate Richland 1 in January, after raising concerns that the center had not received proper authorization and the potential loss of “substantial public funds” while construction was at a standstill.

“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 in a Jan. 22 letter. “This proposed modification is insufficient to address the questions that must be answered regarding the District’s intent and activities to date.”

Until the Inspector General’s investigation has concluded, Richland 1 will have to wait, Tyler wrote. It could take four months — or more, Inspector General Brian Lampkin told The State.

While the project is stalled, it is costing the district more than $2,300 each day. Based on that estimate, Richland 1 has already lost more than $75,000 in the 34 days since construction stopped.

“The Department agrees that these expenses are concerning. To be clear, these expenses are solely attributable to decisions made by the District to initiate and continue with costly construction without obtaining the proper building permit,” Tyler wrote in the letter to Witherspoon. “We urge the District to take all measures appropriate to protect taxpayer resources.”

Richland 1 officials maintain that it acted “properly” in the planning and execution of the impending learning center.

“We welcome the Inspector General’s review and are fully cooperating with the investigation,” district spokesperson Karen York said.