Blacking out the stars

Heritage Planetarium sits on edge of extinction with budget cuts

Blount County commissioner Bob Proffitt, left, and Heritage Planetarium director Tom Webber talk about the future of the facility that is facing the threat of being closed because of budget concerns.

Blount County commissioner Bob Proffitt, left, and Heritage Planetarium director Tom Webber talk about the future of the facility that is facing the threat of being closed because of budget concerns.

Showing their support for the Heritage Planetarium are, front from left, Barbara Webb and Dixie Desien; back from left, Alicia Mantooth, Andrew Tidwell and Lauren Hembree. The group organized an support rally for the planetarium that is facing closure if the school system budget gets cut.

Photo by Leslie Karnowski

Showing their support for the Heritage Planetarium are, front from left, Barbara Webb and Dixie Desien; back from left, Alicia Mantooth, Andrew Tidwell and Lauren Hembree. The group organized an support rally for the planetarium that is facing closure if the school system budget gets cut.

The interior of the Heritage Planetarium is seen in this image taken after the 2007 renovation that included updated, digital projector, a laser, new flooring and new seating.

The interior of the Heritage Planetarium is seen in this image taken after the 2007 renovation that included updated, digital projector, a laser, new flooring and new seating.

Closing the Heritage Planetarium would create a $300,000 broom closet, says director Tom Webber, which is a waste he doesn’t think Blount County residents really want.

If Blount County commissioners opt to reduce the property tax rate for the next fiscal year beginning July 1, the county school board has said that one of the cuts that will have to be made is closing the doors to the planetarium, located on Heritage High School campus.

On May 6, the Blount County School Board had the closing of the Heritage Planetarium on their list of cuts due to budget constraints. On June 3, the board approved an amended budget that put $1.5 million back in the 2010-2011 budget and restored $5,000 for operating costs for the planetarium as well as preventing 24 layoff, cutting athletic supplements and other department and school level cuts.

The next step is the June 17 county commission hearing. Funding for the amended budget is contingent on the Blount County Commission adopting for 2010-11 the current property tax rate of $2.23 per $100 of assessed value instead of cutting the tax rate to the new certified tax rate of $2.04 per $100 of assessed value. Maintaining the current tax rate would, in effect, generate an additional $4.2 million in revenue.

Webber says he is hopeful the commissioners will opt to keep the tax rate where it is so that funding won’t be eliminated.

“I want July 1 to be the same as June 30,” he says. “Let’s pretend you hate math or science or education. Even if you do, from a purely financial perspective, we spent $250,000 on renovations in 2007 and another $50,000 since then. Do you really want a $300,000 broom closet? Even if you are money-driven, it still makes sense to keep the planetarium open.”

Webber says the planetarium, built in the late 1970s when the school opened, was shut down because of budget constraints in 1987 and it was reopened in 1997 with Webber as director. In 2006 the facility was renovated with state-of-art digital equipment from Minolta, new carpet and new seating.

The planetarium director says the new equipment can not tolerate being shut down. “When they closed from 1987 to 1997, it took $30,000 to the analog equipment operational,” he says. “This new equipment cannot sit unused. It needs to be regularly maintained, and it needs to be used.”

Webber says the laser used for laser shows is a Class III laser and a certified laser technician must be on staff. Webber is certified as a laser technician. The director says there are also liability concerns if someone got into the planetarium and damaged the laser or took it out of the building and aimed it at planes flying above or at automobiles.

The planetarium director says something that sets the Heritage Planetarium apart from other planetariums is how the digital and analog projectors along with the laser can be coordinated. “You get all three working together,” he says. “The whole building comes alive.”

Webber says another aspect that sets Heritage Planetarium apart is the free cost to students. He proposed an admission structure for all groups with $2 for each educational planetarium/star show and $2 per entertainment/laser show. “The nearest laser show is $8 and that’s with a $12 admission to a science museum,” he says. “Even at $2, we are way below others. We have to stay economical for schools because they’re facing fuel and bus costs.”

The planetarium director says that as other countries become more competitive for jobs, the United States cannot afford to slip in the way it educates students regarding math and science. “It’s the 21st Century, and there are no lines on maps. You are competing in a global market. We not only support the schools, we spark the students’ interests,” he says.

The planetarium director says the programming can supplement the teacher’s lesson plan and can also challenge students who may be working on a higher level. “I’ve had teachers bring in third graders who were working on a sixth grade level,” he says. “We’re here to support the teachers.”

Webber says the planetarium’s primary purpose remains educational. “Our goal and number customers are the schools. We do public shows but our principle focus is schools,” he says.

Webber says that the most students he has ever seen at the planetarium was in 2003-04 academic year when 35,000 came through the doors. “That was with my wife, Barbara, and me here almost every night and weekend,” he says.

Since the 2007 renovation, Webber says he has averaged seeing about 13,000 to 17,000 students a year at the facility.

Webber has been speaking with local businesses about sponsoring or financially supporting the planetarium if its funding is totally cut. Often they initially speak warmly of the facility only to come back later and back away from committing to the planetarium, he says.

The planetarium director says that while companies want to help, they do not want be fully responsible for funding it. “A lot of them have said, if everything works out, contact us again,” he says.

Webber says he has not cancelled a single program but a few schools have canceled or are not making their fall semester reservations because of concerns the facility will be shuttered when they return from summer break.

The planetarium director says it has been humbling to him the support the facility has gotten from folks who call him or speak to county commissioners encouraging them to find funding. Webber says he had the chance to move onto to a better paying job and chose to stay because he believes in what the planetarium does for students and the public. “I don’t say this out of arrogance. I was offered a job running a science center and planetarium but if I had left, it would’ve been the final nail in the coffin here,” he says.

Webber says he learned in early April the planetarium could be closed because of budget constraints, but found out about it through media reports. “I was given no warning. That irritates me more than anything else,” he says. “Finding corporate or foundation support in 30 days is tough, especially in an environment of panic.”

Commissioner Bob Proffitt showed Saturday to check out the planetarium and speak with Webber. “It is very popular and this has ramifications far outside our county because education groups from outside the county use this facility,” Proffitt says. “It is fortunate we have this, and I think we should do everything to not only keep it but expand its operation.”

On Saturday, four former students were on hand to show their support for the planetarium.

Dixie Desien, 20, of Knoxville, says she volunteered at the planetarium in high school and is hopeful the commission adopts the current tax rate so funding can be maintained at facility. “”We’ve got to save the Heritage Planetarium,” she says. “I’m a huge Heritage High School Planetarium fan, and I’ll do anything to save it.”

Lauren Hembree, 20, of Townsend, says the planetarium’s public programs need to be advertised or publicized more to draw more attention and crowds to it. “The only reason it is not paying for itself is word isn’t getting out,” she says.

Andrew Tidwell, 20, Maryville, says he has always appreciated the planetarium. “The educational levels of the shows are amazing,” he says. “The quality of education it offers to the next generation is priceless.”

Alisa Mantooth, 26, Maryville, remembered the classes she took at the facility. “I took astronomy classes offered here, and it is inspirational,” she says. “It inspires you in ways you can’t explain.”

Webber says the Facebook social media website campaign is a grassroots effort launched by supporters. “I appreciate their support. I would hope it sends a message to the school board and the county commission that this is a resource and an investment worth preserving.”

On Saturday, nine planetarium or laser shows were scheduled throughout the day to raise awareness about the facility. This is the first time Webber has done a full slate of public shows all day long on a Saturday and he compared himself to Jerry Lewis during a Labor Day telethon. “He looks fresh at the beginning but has his tie off at the end,” Webber says. “We’ll see how I’ll look at 10 o’clock tonight. We’ve never done an all-day push.”

Forest Erickson of Maryville also dropped by to chat with Webber and shared how he went to see a planetarium as a child growing up in Minnesota. “We saw what we couldn’t see living in the city,” he says. “Here we have the same thing for East Tennesseans.”

A public hearing regarding the tax rate will be at 6 p.m. June 17 in Room 430 at the Blount County Courthouse. The county commission meeting will be at 7 p.m.

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