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NorCal Planetarium Threatened With Closure

Shasta County Office of Education
Schreder Planetarium in Redding, CA may soon close, due to funding problems.

If you ever visited a planetarium as a kid, you were probably entranced by the way it transported you into outer space, making the stars and planets seem close enough to touch. The Schreder Planetarium in Redding has been creating that magic with generations of school children. Now, the area’s only planetarium open to the public is faced with closure.

As the lights dim inside the domed planetarium, students from a fifth grade class at Pacheco Elementary School in Redding quiet down to see a show about fall’s night sky. Afterward, the kids are impressed.

“It was cool ‘cause I actually felt like I was in space.” “I learned a lot more about Mars and stuff, the stars, and how to find the objects like the big dipper and the little dipper.” “It was awesome!”

For nearly four decades, these planetarium shows have captivated students’ imaginations by exploring what lies beyond Earth. But low attendance numbers, outdated equipment  and the rising cost of operation has lead the Shasta County Office of Education to consider closing the planetarium. The Office works with the county’s 26 school districts on budgeting and program development. It also manages the planetarium.

Tom Armelino is superintendent of the County Office of Education. Armelino thinks it’s hard to justify keeping the Planetarium open when the schools have so many more urgent needs.

“I think everyone would agree that the planetarium is kind of a unique thing,” Armelino says. “It’s neat to kind of have it here in Redding but there’s a cost to that and that cost is being burdened by the taxpayers’ dollars. It’s not paying for itself, it doesn’t appear that it will pay for itself.”

To replace the aging equipment and run the planetarium would cost roughly $1.5 million over the next 10 years.

Armelino points out that less than one percent of the students in Shasta County are using the planetarium and attendance at public shows has dropped by more than half.

He says there are three options on the table.

“One, is we continue to do what we’re doing, which is basically limp along and hope the equipment doesn’t break. Another is to buy new equipment and the board make that financial commitment both the $400,000 to buy new equipment then as well additional money to staff it, advertise it, spend more money, or make the decision to close it and move forward and put the resources in other places.”

But not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.

Jack Schreder is a former Office of Education superintendent . . . and the planetarium’s namesake. He’s concerned that closing the planetarium will deprive students of a valuable educational experience.

“The planetarium was for many years, an integral part of the funding of the county office and it’s only recently that funding has been withdrawn,” Schreder says. “The operation fund, and so, I think the emphasis of the county office needs to be recommitment to the programs that provide hands on experience for young folks . . . You know, it’s all about priorities.”

Schreder thinks that, given the current nationwide emphasis on STEM education  (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) , the planetarium is well worth the cost.

“It was always my interest to stimulate math and science,” he says. “Long before STEM and the planetarium was one of those ways we tried to excite youngsters and folks that have any inclination in science or   planetary science to get involved through exposure to the planetarium.”

Schreder believes that the Shasta County Office of Education isn’t doing everything it can to advertise and market the planetarium’s shows.  Supervisor Tom Armelino disagrees.

“Even with the smaller numbers, we’ve continued to operate the program; we’ve continued to advertise it,” he says. “I don’t believe we advertise any less than we ever have and I know that we advertise more than we did at one time.”

The emphasis on science and math education puts pressure on teachers like Kim Nunn – whose fifth graders enjoyed the show so much today -- to find ways to expose students to these educational requirements. She says the planetarium is a unique resource for doing that.

“There’s only one place they can touch a meteorite,” Nunn says. “There’s only one place that they can see a model of the space shuttle. There’s only one place where they can see the constellations in a dome and the planetarium and feel like they’re traveling through space. We can’t accomplish that in a classroom.”

The Shasta County Office of Education is evaluating its options for the planetariums future.

A final decision will be made in the spring.