UPDATE: Superintendent insists decision to close planetarium not finalized

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comApril 8, 2014 

Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com The new Muscogee County School District administration building is near completion. 09/30/09

MIKE HASKEY — mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

The Patterson Planetarium's two employees say a Muscogee County School District human resources coordinator told them their facility will be closed due to budget cuts, but superintendent David Lewis insisted Tuesday the decision isn't final.

Clay Powers, who has been directing the planetarium for 23 years at the nearly 35-year-old building on the Fort Middle School campus, said the central office representative told him and secretary Heidy McConnell that the planetarium will be closed at the end of this fiscal year, June 30.

Lewis, however, said such news is premature.

"We are not saying it will or will not," Lewis said. "It will be a very difficult decision."

The planetarium's budget is $108,543 for salaries, benefits and supplies, but that figure doesn't include the facility's utilities, which are connected to Fort, and the cost of substitute teachers to cover the field trips, Lewis said. The district must cut $10 million to $11 million to balance next year's budget, he said, based on increased expenses in fixed costs and a projected $1 million decrease in revenue from the state. This year's budget is $270,596,469.

Central office administrators still are doing a district-wide cost-benefit analysis, Lewis said. His staff is meeting with certain employees who might be affected. Thirty-four employees at the district level are being reassigned, redeployed or must reapply for their jobs because the board approved Lewis’ central office reorganization plan last month. Human resources officials also have met with high school media specialists, Lewis said, and were told the district might cut one of the two positions at each of the nine high schools.

Also last month, the board approved Lewis’ recommendation to reduce the high school schedule from eight periods to seven periods, saving an estimated $4 million to $4.5 million by cutting the high school staff by as much as 15 percent. Lewis has said the staff reduction will start with attrition and reassignments but he can’t guarantee there won’t be layoffs.

No employees, however, have lost their job as of yet, Lewis said. They are being alerted as a courtesy, he said. “We want them to be prepared for the possibility,” he said, “to make plans, as opposed to telling them at the last minute.”

Budget decisions won't be made until the district gets the final figures from the state, then formulates its tentative budget in May for the board to adopt in June, Lewis said. The 2015 fiscal year starts July 1.

The planetarium is named after Nathan Patterson, who was the district's assistant superintendent for business affairs in the 1970s and led the effort to build the facility. The construction cost was about $400,000 when it opened in December 1979, Powers said.

Since the Columbus State University Coca-Cola Space Science Center opened in 1996, Powers said, the Patterson Planetarium has remained useful because it serves elementary school students while the CSU facility focuses on its public shows and groups from middle schools and high schools.

The planetarium's annual attendance and the facility's condition haven't declined, Powers said. The planetarium averages about 12,000 in attendance, including about 9,000 to 10,000 MCSD elementary school students. The rest come from other organizations, such as private schools and retirement communities, he said. And the feedback from visitors continues to be overwhelmingly positive, Powers said, noting that not one of the 2,376 anonymous comment cards during the past 10 years has contained a criticism.

“People complain about Disney World,” he said, “so you would expect something negative.”

All of which makes him wonder why the planetarium is on the chopping block.

"This is still a fine facility," he said. "There's literally nothing wrong with this building. The teachers love it. The kids love it. It's a very exciting place.

"We can do stuff here that you can't do in a classroom. There's no substitute for seeing the stars on a domed ceiling. You can't do that on a smartboard or a computer screen."

Lewis, however, said the planetarium was considered for closure last year. A survey of elementary school principals then asked whether learning would be adversely affected by closing the planetarium, he said, and among the respondents, 16 answered no and only two answered yes.

Lewis also noted the elementary school students could be served at the space science center or through its mobile unit.

Regardless, he said, the astronomy and other science lessons taught at the planetarium won’t be eliminated even if the facility is closed. “We aren’t going to reduce that at all,” Lewis said.

Powers said he wasn't told about the school district's plan for the planetarium if it closes. Lewis said it's premature to discuss such a plan.

"I would hate to see it sold for scrap or leveled or just mothballed for years," Powers said.

Admission is free, and the planetarium pays for the cost of busing the MCSD students, Powers said. Anyone who wants to see one of the shows can call the planetarium at 706-569-3622. He can schedule a group or include individuals along with a group already scheduled.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkRiceLE.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.

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