East Lyme school board will allow planetarium group to continue work
East Lyme — The Board of Education voted unanimously Monday to hold off on repurposing the planetarium at East Lyme High School for a year so a group of residents can continue working on a plan to restart the planetarium.
The group has created a business plan to restart and upgrade the planetarium as a facility for students from East Lyme and other school districts in the region and the community at large, with the goal of using no taxpayer funds.
The planetarium at East Lyme High School dates back to the 1970s. But as the school district faced declining enrollment in the high school's astronomy curriculum and a projector that required expensive upkeep, the district decided in 2013 to redesign the planetarium as an astronomy and science classroom and use other technology to project onto the dome, High School Principal Michael Susi has said.
The school district was planning on converting the space into a special education classroom, but decided to hold off after Diane Swan, a town resident and science teacher, approached the school board last summer with a proposal to restart and upgrade the planetarium and run it as a self-sustaining operation.
The group, which has now been incorporated into STARS to STEM Inc., a nonprofit and is working toward its nonprofit tax exempt status, said Monday that it has pledges of support from private individuals, local businesses, and corporate sponsors and presented the board with a timeline of tasks, as well as testimonials from an East Lyme High School graduate, a community member and an educator.
Marie Fain, who has been an educator in the East Lyme school district for 23 years, wrote that she has seen students visiting the planetarium use "technology, teamwork, and observation to learn about the Earth, its rotation, and the night sky," and the elementary students work with the high school students.
During Monday's board meeting, Joyce Towne of Spitz Inc., a 70-year-old planetarium company in Pennsylvania, said today's digital planetariums are used for STEM teaching, the arts, and data visualization, as well as for audiovisual shows for meetings and corporate groups.
The proposed facility could generate revenue through sources that include usage fees from school districts and colleges, sponsorships, and memberships, according to the business model presented to the school board in March.
The committee has initially proposed charging school districts a $22,000 fee, including East Lyme, but East Lyme school board members questioned the idea of charging that fee for the East Lyme school district when the facility was originally designed for the town's students.
Andrew Pappas, co-chairman of the committee, said Monday that, following further review and discussions with the board's ad-hoc planetarium committee, the idea is to instead have East Lyme schools commit to incorporating the planetarium as part of the school district's curriculum, rather than charging the $22,000 fee.
STARS to STEM is seeking written endorsements from the board and school administration to support incorporating the planetarium into the district's educational curriculum.
Board of Education Chairman Tim Hagen said he's very comfortable with holding the space until June 30, 2019. He said the idea of incorporating the planetarium into the curriculum is a "neat twist" on the proposal, but it's the first time the board has heard it and requires more discussion. He also said the board needs input from curriculum experts on if and how the pieces would work together.
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