A week ahead of a scheduled vote, Waco Independent School District trustees are questioning a proposal to guarantee district money to reopen Waco High School’s planetarium if fundraising efforts fall short.

Trustees will have another chance Thursday to vote on committing almost $1 million to the project out of unassigned money from the district’s general operating fund balance. The renovation is expected to cost between $700,000 and $800,000 and to be covered by fundraising. The vote was postponed once already in December because board members had more questions than answers.

Waco ISD leaders have spent the past few months working to gather private sponsorships from businesses, grants from foundations and donations from alumni and individuals to renovate the planetarium.

Built in the ’60s, the planetarium has been closed for more than 20 years, and this is an opportunity to push science education to another level with state-of-the-art technology and equipment, Waco ISD spokesperson Bruce Gietzen said. The reopened operation could also host field trips from other school districts.

Once funding is secured, the planetarium could open as soon as January 2018.

Perception concerns

Though the use of the unassigned funds would only be a safety net for the worst-case scenario if donations fall through, school board members said they aren’t sure they want to commit that much money ahead of time because of a possible perception issue.

They don’t know if the project will be seen more for its educational purposes or the possibility of bringing in additional revenue through public shows, field trips from out-of-district schools and special events, they said during a school board workshop Thursday.

“The key to it is institutionalizing it. You have to keep people coming in order to keep it innovative and keep the program alive,” Assistant Superintendent Robin McDurham said Thursday. “If you make sure the curriculum is actually embedded, then it’s OK if it does cost us money because it has educational value. It could improve scores. It could certainly add a great deal of weight to a kid’s résumé.”

So far, the fundraising efforts have brought in about $115,000, Gietzen said Thursday. The Waco ISD Education Foundation also has agreed to give $200,000 in a four-year period, with some conditions. The money could only be used for getting the project started, not operating expenses, and the district would have to match the donation, board Vice President Allen Sykes said.

“They realized the significance of this project, and Bruce has done a great job of identifying and reporting and thoroughly getting their questions answered, and their conclusion was the project merits their full support,” Sykes said. “And this opens the door for Bruce to continue fundraising efforts with other private entities, individuals, companies.

“I think we’re all very thankful for the Education Foundation making this commitment of such a large amount, and my appreciation is they’ve made a huge statement with regards to supporting this project.”

Even with the foundation’s commitment, how much the board actually commits is still a concern.

“Obviously, the resolution commits (nearly) a million dollars and not $200,000, and I agree with everything Allen just said in terms of broadening support, and I trust you will raise those additional dollars,” Board President Pat Atkins said to Gietzen on Thursday. “What is the rationale for us committing the full $1 million now, as opposed to us committing $200,000, which is the ask, and you come up short on the fundraising and you coming to us and then coming to us and asking us to make up that difference?”

Gietzen said the board’s commitment would help the project get ahead on the long process of bidding, designing, remodeling and naming the planetarium. Having a show of commitment from the school board is an important step to help get that process started, Gietzen said.

“They want to see, some of the foundations, they want to see that the district’s behind this, so that’s what that $200,000 will go for, but the long thought would be that it would allow us to move forward and keep doing the process and really going out and raising money,” Gietzen said.

But Atkins said the commitment would put the school district on the hook for the money regardless of how the fundraising goes.

Gietzen said he knows committing $1 million is scary, but he is confident there will be support from the community based on what he has heard so far.

“I don’t care if it costs us a little bit of money each year, because we’re not really covering all of our expenses every year, in my mind at least,” board member Cary DuPuy said. “What I don’t want it to become is a $200,000 albatross hanging around somebody’s neck, coming out of somebody’s budget who doesn’t want to spend the money on it anymore and we mothball it.”

District officials are still sorting out the specifics on the cost, how revenue will be generated, how the operation will be staffed and how curriculum will be developed.

“As an educational tool, it is very powerful,” Atkins said. “I think we need to be very careful about what we represent this to be to the public. If the representation is going to be we’re going to break even or make money . . . then we need to be accountable and show what we’re doing.”

For more information or to make a donation, contact Gietzen at 755-9454.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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