Mesquite ISD planetarium is likely doomed by budget cuts

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by MONIKA DIAZ

WFAA

Posted on February 23, 2011 at 11:27 PM

Updated Thursday, Feb 24 at 12:09 AM

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MESQUITE — Nearly every school district in Texas is trying to figure out how to operate with less money because of the state's budget crisis.

Mesquite ISD is facing funding cuts between $19 and $38 million. The district's goal is to save jobs — but a program that has been helping students for more than 30 years is on the budget cut recommendations list in both the best- and worst-case scenarios — The Russell Planetarium.

"It will be very sad if this building closes," said Paul Ballou, the facilitator of the Russell Planetarium. He has been there since 2005, but has been with the district 17 years.

The district notified him and two staff members that the planetarium might have to close its doors the next school year.

All planetarium positions are on the table, and if the cuts are implemented, the district hopes to re-assign Ballou and the other employees.

"Honestly, worst-case scenario is that I'm not working as a teacher anymore," Ballou said.

The planetarium program costs about $300,000 a year to operate. Expenses include salaries, utilities, maintenance and transportation.

Every year, close to 17,000 students from all over the district attend classes at the planetarium. The program started in 1977 and the planetarium was renovated in 2008.

A SciDome, a state-of-the-art, full-dome digital projection system, was installed.

But Ballou also leads exercises with ropes, bowling balls and cinder blocks to teach kids about about gravity and energy.

"I love when we get the oohs and ahhs," Ballou said. "I have more technology available to me here to really try the sell the sizzle of science. It would be a shame to lose that."

Ballou hopes he can still "sell the sizzle of science" come August. The kids hope so, too; they say the program works.

"My teacher would just stand there and tell us to like read it in a book, but that's not better," said sixth-grader Vanessa Dwumfour-Poku. "Here you see it with your eyes. I learn more science over here than I do in class."

E-mail mdiaz@wfaa.com

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