Planetarium group gets fundraising criteria

The Arlington School Board wants Friends of Arlington's David M. Brown Planetarium to raise more than $161,000 by September.
The Arlington School Board wants Friends of Arlington's David M. Brown Planetarium to raise more than $161,000 by September. (Arlington County Public Schools)
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By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Friends of Arlington's David M. Brown Planetarium must raise more than $400,000 by this time next year if they want to keep the planetarium open after the 2010-11 school year.

The group, which recently turned in its application for nonprofit status, quickly formed this spring when the planetarium was cut out of the Arlington County public schools budget. The School Board and superintendent agreed to let the planetarium stay open this school year if the group of astronomy professionals and enthusiasts could raise money to pay for new seating, a new star projector and a new dome, at a total cost of $402,800.

More than 75 donors have contributed a total of about $6,700 to the cause, and Saturday, the group will hold its first major fundraiser, "A Night at the Planetarium." The School Board set up fundraising goals for the group, expecting it to raise more than $161,000 by September.

Alice Monet, board president for the Friends, said the group isn't likely to meet that "unrealistic" goal, because fundraising in the summer is difficult. That won't stop them from trying, however, she said.

"We've had very encouraging responses from a lot of different corridors, and I'm feeling quite encouraged about our prospects," said Monet, an astronomer with the U.S. Navy. "The other side of the coin is this is not just about raising money. I think when September comes, and we can demonstrate a broad base of support, I think that will speak as loudly as the size of our bank balance."

The funding deadlines set up by the School Board are more like grading periods, said Linda Erdos, an Arlington County schools spokeswoman.

"The more important benchmark is December 31. At that point, we will be formulating the fiscal 2012 budget," she said. The group should have nearly $242,000 by then, according to the School Board goals. "I think what the board and superintendent didn't want to do is wait until next June to see if it hadn't worked," Erdos said.

Although the Friends group is focused on fundraising, its members also are trying to excite the public about "what is happening in the world of astronomy right now," said member Raphael Perrino.

Saturday's fundraiser will feature shows throughout the day, as well as a myriad of telescopes for people to try out, thanks to the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, one of the largest astronomy enthusiast groups in the country with 800 professional and amateur members.

Paul Derby, a trustee for the club's board of directors, said the Friends group is working toward a noble cause. However, he said, "this was not a good precedent" for the school system to set.

"Arlington public schools and the School Board are stewards of this financial asset," he said. "If the community raises the $400,000, we don't know what will be next. Will it be the chemistry club? I doubt it will be the football team."

Derby said a community dialogue on the issue should be started. Although the planetarium equipment is dated, he said, cheaper upgrades could be made, and the Friends group hopes to take that idea to the School Board when the school year begins.

"Looking at a picture of the sky in two dimensions isn't anywhere as rich of an experience as looking at a dome," Derby said.

Although the International Dark Sky Association has no formal relationship with the planetarium and its supporters, Milton Roney, an associate director with the association, said his organization will have a display at the fundraiser that will compare Galileo's telescope with the science available today. The group will explain how light pollution prohibits many in the Washington area from seeing the Milky Way and will offer other reasons to cut down on lighting the night skies, such as reducing energy consumption, Roney said.

"We've got 50 stars on our flag," he said. "It would be nice if we could see 50 stars from Arlington."

The school system and county officials have agreed to turn the lights off at Washington-Lee High School, which is adjacent to the planetarium, to improve the public's chances of seeing stars.

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