While school district officials haven’t officially declared the project to remodel the Waco High School planetarium on hold, fundraising and any potential construction has taken a back seat because of ongoing transitions within Waco Independent School District.
The remodel was anticipated to be finished this month, but because of a community focus on addressing struggling schools, a districtwide improvement study and administrative changes, efforts have slowed, Waco ISD spokesman Kyle DeBeer said.
In July, Bruce Gietzen, the former Waco ISD spokesman who spearheaded the project, left to become Baylor University’s new director of student publications.
At the time of his departure, Gietzen said the change would not impact plans to raise between $700,000 and $800,000 to help cover the cost of the estimated nearly $1 million project, and that almost two-thirds of the funding was raised. As of Wednesday, Gietzen had about $600,000 in verbal commitments, he said.
“That was our best-case scenario goal, that we would have it ready in a year,” Gietzen said, adding the plan was to hopefully have the planetarium built in the spring and ready for the summer, but “little things kept happening.”
One of those things is a comprehensive capital improvement study by the district to develop a five-year plan that takes a hard look at facility needs, DeBeer said.
Though in the early stages, the plan will look at everything, including the planetarium, and address how to better budget and improve facilities across the district, he said. The study is internally led, with no help from an outside firm, and will include assessments from maintenance employees, campus principals and other Waco ISD officials, he said.
The plan is expected to be done sometime later this year.
In the meantime, Gietzen’s waiting to see what word the district gives, but he hasn’t given up on gathering donations, he said. He still has business representatives and alumni ask him about it and those who have already pledged money so far are still committed, he said.
“The bottom line is a lot of people still want the planetarium to happen, they think it’s a great idea and I think it will happen,” he said. “I’m just not sure of the timeline.”
He would rather Waco ISD officials be good stewards of taxpayer money than rush to complete it, he said.
“If it takes a year longer to do it right, it’s not a big deal,” Gietzen said. “It will be a valuable tool for kids in Waco ISD and across McLennan County. The silver lining in this is as we wait a little bit, technology will continue to evolve.
The planetarium was built in the 1960s and has been closed to the last 20 years. The renovation will be an opportunity to push science education to another level with state-of-the-art equipment, Gietzen said in January 2017 when the effort began.
“I have to give a shout out to Bruce,” DeBeer said. “He’s created a lot of excitement about the project and a real sense of momentum and I certainly want to recognize the role he’s played.”
The district is also still open to accepting donations, and those interested can contact the Waco ISD Education Foundation, DeBeer said.