Waccamaw Economic Opportunity Council facility work halted

Work on the Choppee Head Start Center has been suspended while the Waccamaw Economic Opportunity Council and federal authorities work on problems surrounding the facility, said Wilhelmina Whitfield, the agency's Head Start director.

Construction began about two weeks ago without the agency having secured a loan to pay for it. It had a promise of 25 percent of the construction costs from the federal authorities, but had tried unsuccessfully for nearly two years to get a loan to pay for the rest.

Whitfield, also the agency's interim executive director, told a joint meeting of the EOC board and the agency's Head Start Policy Council on Wednesday that the agency is talking with officials at the Head Start regional office in Atlanta.

"They're working well with us," she said. "We don't foresee a long process."

Whitfield said she hopes the facility will be able to open in September.

The joint meeting was held at the request of the Policy Council, and members of that board said they wanted answers to questions about the Choppee center.

Kiley Wilson, the Policy Council's chairwoman, said she was getting phone calls about the center that she can't answer.

"They knew more than what I knew because of what they read in the newspaper," she said.

She said she wanted a forecast on the future of the center, even if it was, "You know what? We dropped the ball on this," and the project would be set aside for a couple of years.

Whitfield admitted in the meeting that there aren't many children in the Choppee community of Georgetown County to be educated at the center, but insisted the facility is needed.

She did not say why. A couple of weeks ago, she also refused to answer why the center is needed.

The agency signed a contract for more than $800,000 for the more than 8,000-square-foot facility with a construction firm in Mount Pleasant.

Whitfield said students for the new center would be bused from Georgetown, Browns Ferry, Pleasant Hill and other areas, where there are already existing Head Start classes in rooms provided for free by Georgetown County Schools.

The agency had been challenged by former board members Richard Smith and Ulysses Dewitt about planning for the center and busing children longer distances than they ride to get to current Head Start classrooms.

Whitfield, when challenged by Smith that the new center would not hold as many children as were currently enrolled in the program, said that would mean that fewer children would get a Head Start education.

Some current board members also have concerns about the facility and tried to ask questions at Wednesday night's meeting. Zacharius Grate, board chairman, seemed to resent having to answer questions put directly to him by board member James Scott.

Those discussions were put to rest, though, when it was decided they would best be held at the EOC board's meeting scheduled for Tuesday night.

Board member John Battiste seemed to predict a long session when the discussion convenes.

"The reason this meeting was called," he said, "was because if we tried to do this at a regular board meeting, we'd be there until 11 o'clock at night."