East Lyme gets update on planetarium proposal

East Lyme — A committee seeking to transform the planetarium space at East Lyme High School into an educational and community resource updated the school board on Monday with its plans to restart and operate the facility.

The committee has said the project would serve “as a model of how to create new initiatives during financially trying times.”

The Planetarium Advisory Committee, co-chaired by Diane Swan and Andrew Pappas, is proposing to upgrade the space into a state-of-the-art planetarium that would seat 50 people. It would not only serve students from East Lyme and other districts in the region, but also the larger community, according to the committee’s business plan.

The facility could "serve as a foundational piece" for a potential STEM Academy and could be rented out for family events or business trainings, according to the plan.

The planetarium would appeal to people of all ages and would include presentations about not only astronomy, but other topics such as ecology, biology, language and music, according to the committee’s presentation.

The committee is in the planning stages to create a nonprofit organization, called "STARS TO STEM" (Society Takes Actions and Risks in Sciences), that would not be dependent on tax revenue. The nonprofit, along with a board, would be responsible for the initiative, including all start-up costs and revenue generation to sustain the facility, according to the plan.

The business model will use “public/private donations, as well as grants, to generate revenue while offsetting costs to the education and the overall town budget,” Swan said.

Swan, an East Lyme resident and science teacher, had proposed last July the idea of bringing the planetarium back online. The planetarium, built in the 1970s, was reconfigured in 2013 to serve as both an astronomy and science classroom. The shift came as enrollment in the high school’s astronomy course had been dropping, and it was costly to maintain the projector and get replacement parts for it. The school district used other technology to project content onto the dome.

On Monday, the committee presented the board with a budget and a business plan that details costs and revenue streams for the initial year and the second year. The committee anticipates the initial costs for the planetarium will be about $285,500. The first-year operations budget, including costs for a program coordinator, educational specialist, a part-time accounting and finance position, maintenance and technical support, is expected to be $177,500, and the revenue projections are $200,000, according to the plan.

The committee is proposing to fundraise both during the start-up process and when the facility is up and running. The $200,000 in projected revenue for the first year is anticipated to come from K-12 school districts that would use the facility, sponsorships, memberships, other educational systems, such as higher educational institutions that would use the facility, nonprofits, and businesses and other programs, according to the plan.

The business plan anticipates that if four school districts used the facility they would each pay $22,500 per year. The business model anticipates that the East Lyme school district would pay a fee like other school districts who use it, but Swan said that is up for negotiation and review.

The school district held off this year on converting the space into a special education classroom while the committee investigated the idea. The committee said its goal is to enter into a contract with a vendor in March 2019 and is asking the school board to continue to hold the space.

The school board said Monday that it will vote on holding the space at a future meeting.

k.drelich@theday.com

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