Boosters of the Arlington school system’s planetarium are hopeful that new budget funding will enable the facility – shuttered since before the pandemic – to reopen with a permanent teacher attached to it by fall.
School Board members in early May overruled Superintendent Francisco Durán and dropped in nearly $150,000 to support the David M. Brown Planetarium for the coming school year. Durán had proposed keeping the facility closed for another year.
“This vote concludes two months of advocacy,” noted Jennifer Lynn Bartlett of Friends of the David M. Brown Planetarium, which every few years needs to mobilize after school leaders attempt to snip some funding out of the budget by scaling back or eliminating the facility and its programming.
Durán had first given proponents of the facility hope, recommending at the start of the year that the planetarium’s projection system be modernized. But in late February, he recommended keeping the building shuttered for another year.
With the budget amendment, it’s likely that the planetarium will be able to be staffed up and operational before the end of the year.
“Messy as this process has been, the Friends are excited that the planetarium is scheduled to open this fall,” Bartlett said.
The planetarium already had been slated to be closed for a year or more for renovations when the COVID pandemic hit and sent students and teachers behind home computers for more than a year.
The planetarium, located along North Quincy Street, dates to the 1960s. In 2008, the School Board named it in honor of David Brown, a 1974 Yorktown High School graduate who went on to become a physician, U.S. Navy aviator and astronaut. Brown was among those killed in 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry.
Durán is not the first superintendent to have thought the planetarium a good spot for cost-savings, only to see the community strike back.
In 2010, then-Superintendent Patrick Murphy – in what was a rookie mistake for a new schools’ chief – proposed closing the facility permanently to save funds, a move that provoked a community outcry.
Eventually, School Board members agreed to keep the facility open, but only after shaking down the Friends group for the funding necessary to provide programming.
The facility, with its signature dome, sits adjacent to what had for decades been the headquarters of the county school system – the Arlington Education Center, a 1960s-era building that to many looked like a slice of wedding cake.
The school system moved out several years before the pandemic, turning the space into an adjunct to the adjacent Washington-Liberty High School.