POPLAR RIDGE | The director of the Southern Cayuga Planetarium and Observatory said Monday that the planetarium is in danger of shutting down if the school district can't assist with the facility's funding.
The Southern Cayuga Central School District Board of Education listened during the meeting as Alan Ominsky, planetarium/observatory director, presented on the advantages of having a local high school planetarium and how funding and a vision for the facility's future are needed now.
"Since I've been running the planetarium, I don't believe the district has provided any funds for the operation of the planetarium," Ominsky said.
Ominsky said for the last four to five years, there has been no line item on the school district's budget for the planetarium and observatory. He also said a NASA grant expired recently, creating a need for funds to maintain facilities, update equipment and pay his salary.
Carl Scheffler, science teacher and the coordinator of the science department, said the planetarium could be revamped to include enhanced programming in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
"There's both state and national initiatives to increase the amount of STEM out there," Scheffler said.
At the conclusion of his presentation, Ominsky asked the board for four things:
1) A line item on the district budget to fund programming and maintenance of the planetarium and observatory;
2) A commitment to new programming with innovative science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) themes;
3) A plan and vision for the facilities and their director (Ominsky); and
4) A follow-up meeting with board members about these issues.
"It's gotten to the point where we can't manage without some help," Ominsky said. "I think the school has some responsibility to keep it going. ... We're really scraping by."
School board president Larry Van De Valk said past budget figures Ominsky presented were helpful, but didn't originate from the district's actual budget records. Van De Valk requested that Ominsky try to work with the district to find better records of past planetarium expenses and revenues.
Board vice president Susan Gloss asked Ominsky if the $100 fee he charges groups to come see a show is comparable to what other planetariums charge.
Superintendent Patrick Jensen said he recognizes the need for infrastructure improvement at the planetarium if the district decides to keep it running. He said in order to get funding from the New York State Education Department, the planetarium facility must be occupied by students at least 50 percent of each school day, a somewhat difficult feat, as the facility is not attached to the school building, he said.
The aging facility needs about $400,000 of work to maintain the roof, walls around the windows and the building's mechanical components, Jensen said, and with no state aid, that would make a dent in the district's budget.
"Have you had the chance to look at any grant opportunities?" he asked Ominsky.
Ominsky said grants are not his forte and asked the board to sit down with him to think of ways to look for and apply for appropriate grants. Although no follow-up meeting was set, the board and Jensen said they are open to further discussion with Ominsky about the planetarium's future.