Planetarium closed: Webber resigns post for Florida job

Thomas R. Webber is on his way to a new job in Jacksonville, Fla., after resigning as director of the Heritage Planetarium in Blount County in a dispute with the administration of Blount County Schools over the facility’s future.

Webber, who resigned last Monday, said in a telephone interview that he left after his pay was cut to a level “less than a first-year teacher.”

He also said he and school system administrators encountered differences in how the planetarium should be run.

Director of Schools Rob Britt could not be reached for comment. A notation on the Blount County Schools website Friday said: “The Heritage Planetarium operated by Blount County Schools will be closed temporarily beginning October 6, 2010 following the resignation of the program director.

“Announcements pertaining to the operation of the planetarium program will be made at a later date by the Blount County Board of Education and Director of Schools Mr. Rob Britt.”

Webber, who has run the Heritage Planetarium for 13 years, said school officials viewed the facility as a luxury and a financial drag on a system that is already struggling financially.

“I showed them how to generate revenue,” Webber said, adding that his suggestions did not find favor with the administration.

The planetarium’s future was first brought into question during budget season earlier this year, when a financial shortfall was identified, and the system threatened to lay off teachers and other personnel, including Webber.

But the Blount County Commission adjusted its budget to help cover the shortfall, and it was believed the planetarium had been saved.

At that time, Webber said, he had circulated his resume to other planetariums and actually turned down a more lucrative offer last June from another planetarium.

He said the September pay cut spurred him to accept an offer from the Museum of Science and History in Jacksonville to run a new - and larger - planetarium scheduled to open Oct. 23.

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