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Fernbank Science Center in Jeopardy of Closing

A DeKalb School board committee suggested pulling funding for the science center in an effort to close a $73 million budget gap.

in Druid Hills is in jeopardy of losing funding from the DeKalb County School System.

DeKalb school board members are working to plug a $73 million gap in the system’s budget, and a committee recommended Thursday an additional $17.5 million in cuts that includes closing the science center.

These recommendations came after a budget was tentatively approved on Tuesday that includes $44.5 million in cuts and layoffs but relied on a tax increase some board members oppose.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution polled eight of the nine board members about the 2-mill tax increase.

Tom Bowen, Nancy Jester, Don McChesney, Pam Speaks and Paul Womack oppose the tax increase. Eugene Walker, Jesse “Jay” Cunningham and Donna Edler are in support. Sarah Copelin-Wood could not be reached for comment

Fernbank Science Center

The district spends about $4.7 million to operate the Fernbank Science Center and pay 56 full-time employees.

The center, which includes a museum and planetarium, offers hands-on education about animals and planets to about 160,000 school children and visitors each year.

School board Chairman Eugene Walker told the AJC he opposes closing the center.

“It’s a great educational opportunity for students that are interested in science,” he said.

A public hearing to talk about the additional cuts proposed by the budget commitee is scheduled for Wednesday, May 30, at 6 p.m. at district headquarters, 1701 Mountain Industrial Blvd. in Stone Mountain.

What’s your take — should the district consider closing the center to save money? Tell us in the comments!

Jim Kinney May 25, 2012 at 11:16 PM
As the home values have plummeted, the school funding has also plummeted. Raising the tax rate will put the amount paid into the process closer to where it was before the housing bubble burst. So those that pay property taxes will be asked to fund the schools closer to the same dollar amount as before. We have to make a choice to do the right thing for our communities future or continue down the path we are on where more and more of our schools get labelled as "focus" or "alert" due to failing student performance.
Amy Fuchs May 26, 2012 at 12:52 AM
Times are tough. We have to make hard choices. Every choice needs to be made with the kids best interests in mind. The Fern Bank is a great resource. I suggest selling it. A private entity can keep it going for the public use. Right now every choice the school board makes should be to cut any fat possible and focus on keeping class sizes small and teachers teaching.
Everardo Vega May 26, 2012 at 01:28 AM
The center cannot be sold or taken over. It is leased by Fernbank Inc., once it is lost it is lost forever. Fernbank Inc., has been hostile against the Center because they are not as high priced as the museum. The truth is, the museum can only offer volunteers and the science centers offers true scientist to teach our kids. The center is one thing Dekalb County does right. Below is just a sampling of what the Science Center offers. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXFIfktx4NQ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhFIb7O7zvg&feature=relmfu http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AogMVl8GLWw&feature=relmfu http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALIiojSJPrA&feature=relmfu
J Burden May 26, 2012 at 10:11 PM
Both of my daughters completed the Fernbank Scientific Tools and Techniques program for high school freshmen and were greatly inspired by it. Both were in the top ten percent of their graduating class and one was school valedictorian. Dekalb needs programs like these to encourage students' interest in science and earth studies!
Jim Kinney May 27, 2012 at 04:42 AM
Sadly, DCSS has been "trimming the fat" for a number of years now. There gets to a point where further cuts do permanent damage to the system. Class sizes are already at the legal maximum. Even if the entire staff above the principals were let go, it wouldn't fill the budget hole. The drop in real estate value has resulted in a drop in property tax payments that fund the schools. The tax rate needs to be raised so the amount paid in is the same it was before the real estate crash. The school system is already in an academic performance crisis. The schools that hit rock bottom will be eligible for additional funding but the price of that situation is paid by the students for the rest of their lives. From an educational standpoint, Fernbank should be expanded so it can serve double or triple the students it serves now. Science is a hands-on process and students perform well with hand-on processes. It's the math and science intensive fields that the overall economy depends on for innovation and growth and any plan to cut that process out of the next generation is dangerous. As a whole, Georgia's public K12 schools are not known for excellence and DeKalb no longer rides at the top of the Georgia schools. We have fundamental structural problems with K12 education and a further loss of resources will only exacerbate the problem. If the private sector wants more than a marginally educated work force, they'll need to step up and deliver resources where needed.
Amy Fuchs May 27, 2012 at 02:04 PM
I am sure a private entity can lease the space and keep all the great stuff for the public. I have read the GCPS Budget line by line for FY2012 and FY2013 and addressed the school board with concerns and alternative ideas... once our class sizes are smaller and needed cut programs are back we can look at other things that are great but not a necessity. Its back to basics time and once that is in place we can think about things like this.
Amy Fuchs May 27, 2012 at 02:05 PM
I am sure the same issues go for your county.
Cynthia Johnson May 27, 2012 at 10:45 PM
The members of the Dekalb County school system need to scrap the idea on eliminating the budget to close the Fernbank Science Center, and instead reduce the salary of the teachers who continue to underperform in the classroom. That would definitely save money. Of course, there will be outrage, but something has to be done to stir up the pot. Another good idea is to evaluate the teachers who are currently in the classrooms, and eliminate tenure from those who fail. Proposing to close the Fernbank Science Center and other programs like it are typical ideas of people who are corrupt and no longer care about the future of this country. It actually sends the message that the representatives of the Dekalb School system are "ANTI-EDUCATION ADVOCATES." Sad. Really sad. I am not Republican by any standpoint, just a person who wants Georgia to improve their school ranking in the country.
Jim Kinney May 29, 2012 at 03:49 AM
The public school system was created because of the failings of the private school system. I quite teaching in a private school because a school supporter demanded his child get a far better grade than was deserved. I refused and was appalled when "upstream forces" changed the grade anyway. The private sector can't fully take over a school system because the process is inherently not profit oriented. The K12 school process is 12 years of cash-out investment followed by 1-5 years of nurturing before the payoff begins. Then it's another 10-20 years for payback. The time of this investment is far longer than private entities will tolerate. Some school systems have replaced individual school management and teachers with a contracted group of people. What this does is provide an avenue for skirting the bad policies from school boards and top-heavy administrations. It makes it easy to fire under-performing teachers. It also makes an environment whose core focus is on the bottom line of the finances and not the bottom line of the students achievement. I am still looking for reports of long term success or failure from these. DCSS paid handsomely about a decade ago for a management audit. The parents complained about many things and the report basically said that parents were right and only touched the tip of the iceberg of the problem list. The report's recommendations were never fully implemented to my understanding.
Jane May 29, 2012 at 04:00 AM
Fernbank Science Center consumes millions of science education dollars while our science achievement is the lowest in the metro area (with the exception of Clayton Schools). Fernbank employs five non teaching Exhibit Designers and one Cabinetmaker that cost $500,000 in salary and benefits while the entire science equipment and supply budget for the 95,000 student taught science every day in the regular education classrooms is $50,000 (50 cents a year per student). This center needs $2,000,000 in renovations to bring it up to date. The forest is now gone as the lease reverted to the Fernbank Museum. NASA eliminated funding the SEMAA program. Fernbank Science Center has 28 administrative and support personnel for 28 teachers. Divide $5,000,000 by 160,000 visitors and you will see that each visitor cost the school system $31.00. Shutter this moldy building and house the excellent Fernbank instructors throughout the school system where the services they provide can be accessible to more students for less cost.
Jim Kinney May 29, 2012 at 11:36 AM
For 30 years, Ferbank has been nearly the ONLY science resource in DCSS. The loss of SEMA was as heartbreaking (my son was a participant) as it was shortsighted. I agree that the science funding priorities are sorely lacking but I don't see the ability to replace what Fernbank does by moving it's science educators into the individual schools as a viable alternative. The observatory and planetarium are far from mobile and are highly unique opportunities for DCSS students. The observatory has inspired more than one student to pursue a career in science. We desperately need to enhance the science education process in the 1-5 grades. That's the critical time that little kids are most curious and science, and hands on science labs in particular, is an extremely effective motivator. If they get "the bug" then, they keep it forever. If we wait until middle school to start the science labs, puberty is already interfering (with everything!) and the kids that were on the fence about science are lost.
Jane May 29, 2012 at 11:07 PM
@ Jim Kinney $5,000,000+ spent on Fernbank would buy us 100 highly qualified science teachers with Masters degrees and 5 years experience who could teach science every day in our schools. We will not have hands-on labs with the class sizes currently have and most certainly with the class sizes we are facing. Science should come alive every day for students - not once or twice a year. Fernbank Science Center has 28 highly non teaching admin and support personnel to 28 teachers. Here is the cost of the five Fernbank Science Center non teaching Exhibit Designers and one Cabinetmaker: Look at the Fernbank Designer salaries (they maintain the relatively few Fernbank exhibits) – from the 2011 state Salary and Travel audit: Designer $77,381 Designer $63,360 Designer $84,073 Designer $65,827 Designer $69,178 Total: $359,819 With benefits – $431,782 for five Fernbank Designers Cabinetmaker $56,600 a year in salary and benefits Do not say we need to enhance the science education process in the 1-5 grades when we are in a budget crisis and we can spend $500,000 on five Exhibit Designers and a Cabinetmaker. These non teaching personnel make much more than your son's teachers will ever make. Here is the salary schedule for teacher's in DeKalb County: http://www.dekalb.k12.ga.us/human-resources/teacher-salary-schedule
Amy Fuchs May 29, 2012 at 11:36 PM
Jane - I have been working and saying stuff like that in regards to the Gwinnett County School Budget. It sounds like we are parents wanting the same thing ... the best for our schools and better choices in this time of crisis. Email me at Amy4OurKids@Yahoo.Com .... we should talk. My husband actually asked if I wrote your comment under a different name......
Noreen G June 14, 2012 at 04:53 PM
What do exhibit designers & science center staff do? They create exhibits and interactive experiences that inform and inspire visitors. They get people excited about science and new discoveries and possibilities. Some of you say, we can't afford a science center and we have to go back to basics. Nowadays teachers are trapped by the time requirements of preparing & grading lessons and filling out tons of paper work for student files. They have no time to stray from the required curriculum. The staff at the Fernbank Science Center have the flexibility to bring the latest discoveries to the community. These people get students excited about science and technology. What they do is far more than the black and white those salaries (quoted in previous posts) suggest...... How far will a high school dropout go? A minimum wage job? A future on public assistance? The science center inspires people to dream beyond themselves...to go to college. It provides great value to students in a way formal education can't. Yes, we can all agree that times are tough financially, but closing the Fernbank Science Center is not the answer. As earlier posts show, the budgets have been slashed over the years to the bone. Now Atlanta is at the breaking point. Do you save money now at the incredible expense of taking away inspiring resources for students? Students, especially those at-risk, need the science center. Find another way...the community needs the Fernbank Science Center.
Carol Hardenburg June 17, 2012 at 08:08 PM
Keep Fernbank Science Center open!!! It is a necessary resource for teaching so many aspects of science with exhibits and hands on experiences that text books don't offer. The center is different from, yet complimentary to the neighboring Fernbank Museum of Natural History. The Fernbank Forest is a wonderful resource for learning about nature, science and respect for and conservation of our natural resources. A previous comment noted that "the forest is now gone...". I'm not sure of the status of the forest, but if it is not being used for educational purposes, that's a shame. I went to the science center and forest as a child, worked there in the Youth Conservation Corps and still visit as an adult. Please keep this existing treasure open for students of all ages. Cut waste in the DCSD where ever possible and reallocate any excess monies in restricted funds.
Jim Kinney June 17, 2012 at 08:57 PM
If I understand your view correctly, we should be firing people who make more than $X (because they've been there a long time - most over 20 years). Let's start at the top of the payroll and go down to what level? I am appalled at the number of people who see everything so short-sighted that they are willing to throw out the only science process we currently have in DCSS. Why don't we do a better job with what we have? Really lousy leadership for 20+ years has rendered the school system ineffective at many things. Given the need for trained scientists and engineers and the economic realities that students who go that route will be more likely to be employed than those that chase professional athletics, maybe we should use data like that as driving points for making payroll cut choices. $5M currently buys us a building full of PhDs in science (not education majors but real, went to school and majored in science and got PhDs in fields such as Botany, Astrophysics, Chemistry, and Geology) and all the support staff to generate a process that is underutilized by the school system. The number of DCSS students entering Fernbank has steadily dropped as the board cut funding for sending students there. So it's no wonder such a large group of people don't "get it" when people like me say that closing Fernbank is a truly horrible idea. There's been an undercurrent of people working to sabotage Fernbank for nearly 2 decades. I can only speculate as to why. Maybe they hate science.
Jim Kinney June 17, 2012 at 09:06 PM
For those who think science education in DCSS is benefited by Fernbank Science Center, there is a rally planned for Monday, June 18, 2012 at 10 am at Fernbank Science Center in support of keeping it open. The board is scheduled to meet Wednesday to finalize this upcoming disaster budget and Fernbank is back on the cut list.
FSC June 19, 2012 at 04:29 PM
You keep trotting out these same stats...what you don't get is that these exhibit designers...of which there are now only 3, work for the entire county, designing exhibits, artwork, and planetarium shows. Their exhibits go out into every school into the entire county and sometimes it is the only time a child will ever get to see a real taxidermied specimen in their lifetime. The "cabinet maker" is the person that builds every single thing here a FSC, from exhibits to things that instructors dream up to teach their classes with. Yes, the forest is gone, but we are now doing the REACH program, which we have partnered with the DeKalb Parks and Recreation department and will be teaching children in the parks that are closest to their home schools (thereby reducing transportation costs) and getting them out into nature...again, often the only time there are ever out experience these kinds of things with a real scientists. Your 28 administrative and support personnel figure is also incorrect. There are 2 secretaries, and one bookkeeper. There is a Director and an Asst Administrator. We are a 6 day a week operation so one of the administrators has to be here every single day as well as security.
FSC June 19, 2012 at 04:35 PM
This is the rest of the previous post...didn't have enough room. We are open on Thursdays and Friday nights until 10 so that people can come to planetarium shows and to the observatory...again, the largest public observatory in the southeast. We have 3 security guards that rotate. We have 4 people on our custodial staff that split the six day a week shifts so that there are always two of them here. We do also have someone that works at the front desk that answers the phone and gives people directions and sells planetarium tickets. I don't think I missed anyone. All of these people are vital to the success of FSC. My count is 13. SEMAA is not yet a done deal. There are still negotiations going on. What most people don't know is that FSC wrote that curriculum for NASA. I and another instructor here wrote the 3rd and 5th grade units. FSC has the ability to generate money for the school system if they would just give us the chance to do it. We have not had this chance as we have been hamstrung and unable to grantwrite or form a foundation in the past. And as for being a moldy building? Please come visit and point out this mold to me...I will gladly clean it myself. Also, no one remembers that these people work 12 months a year so you can't compare them to teachers salaries...that's comparing apples to oranges!!
FSC June 19, 2012 at 04:43 PM
Thank you so much Noreen!!

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