Outlook improves for Arlington, Va., schools planetarium

Jonathan Harmon, the planetarium's director, with its projector.
Jonathan Harmon, the planetarium's director, with its projector. (Evy Mages For The Washington Post)
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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010

The stars will shine in the David M. Brown Planetarium next year, after the Arlington County School Board unanimously approved a new budget Thursday night.

The $442 million operating budget includes $114,000 to keep the planetarium open part time. The budget includes a part-time teaching position for the facility, which now has 2 1/2 positions for teaching and scheduling shows.

"The main thing is the doors will stay open," School Board Chairman Sally Baird said.

School administrators recommended closing the aging planetarium this year, citing its outdated equipment and questionable educational value.

But parents and community members rallied to save the facility, which was named for a graduate of Arlington's Yorktown High School who was killed in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster. More than 900 people signed an online petition, and more than 3,000 joined an online Save the Arlington Planetarium Facebook page. Some residents formed a Friends of the Arlington Planetarium group, which has pledged to raise money to update the 1960s-era technology.

Baird said the reduction in services will give school officials time to revisit the planetarium curriculum and supporters a chance to start fundraising.

"I think we can look at this as a step in the right direction," said Douglas R. Brown, the brother of the astronaut and a leading advocate of keeping the planetarium open. He said he is hoping for a more permanent solution.

The planetarium is one of many across the country that have struggled to stay open as the space race fades into history and school systems struggle to pay for maintenance and new technology.

The School Board's budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes less state funding than initially expected and anticipates more than 800 additional students. The new budget is slightly larger than this year's budget, but per-pupil spending will shrink.

A temporary reduction in the school system's required contribution to the state employee retirement system freed up about about $14 million this year, although the board is planning to put $9 million into a reserve. The board also restored funding for instructional specialists and rejected a proposed fee for athletics.

Class sizes, which range from 19 to 23 students, will still increase by an average of one student in the plan. Fourth- and fifth-grade classes, which tend to be the largest in elementary schools, will be spared.

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