In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach — a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse.

The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” said an enthusiastic Elisha Holmes as he worked Friday with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the goal of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

School Finance

IPS board votes to ask taxpayers for $315 million, reject the chamber’s plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indianapolis Public Schools officials voted Tuesday to ask taxpayers for $315 million over eight years to help close its budget gap — an amount that’s less than half the district’s initial proposal but is still high enough to draw skepticism from a local business group.

The school board pledged to continue discussions in the next week with the Indy Chamber, which released an alternative proposal last week calling for massive spending cuts and a significantly smaller tax increase. The school board rejected the proposal as unrealistic and instead voted to add a much larger tax measure to the November ballot.

If the school board and the chamber come to a different agreement before the July 24 meeting, the board can change the request for more taxpayer money before it goes to voters. Some board members, however, were dubious that they would be able to find common ground.

“While I appreciate the fact that we want to continue to negotiate, I’m pretty sure that I’m at rock bottom now,” said school board member Kelly Bentley. “That initial proposal by the chamber is, unfortunately in my mind, it’s insulting. It’s insulting to our children, and to our neighborhoods, and to our families.”

Chamber leaders, whose support is considered important to the referendum passing, were skeptical about the dollar amount. In a press release, the group said the district was “taking another step towards seeking a double-digit tax increase.”

“We’re concerned that our numbers are so divergent,” said chamber president and CEO Michael Huber in the statement. “We need to study the assumptions behind the $318 million request; clearly the tax impact is significant and the task of winning voter support will be challenging.”

During the board meeting, which lasted more than two hours, district leaders discussed why schools need more money and why the chamber report is unrealistic. They also took comments from community members who were largely supportive of the tax increase.

Joe Ignatius, who mentors students through 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, said that he has seen the benefits of more funding from referendums in other communities.

“This should be a no brainer, to invest in our future for the students,” Ignatius said. “Don’t think about the immediate impact of the dollars that may come out of your pocket but more the long-term impact.”

If the district goes forward with its plan, and voters approve the tax increase, the school system would get as much as $39.4 million more per year for eight years. A family with a home at the district’s median value — $75,300 — would pay about $3.90 more per month in property taxes. (Since the initial proposal, the district reduced the median home value used in calculations on the advice of a consultant.)

The district plan comes on the heels of months of uncertainty. After the school board abandoned its initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion for operating expenses and construction, district officials spent weeks working with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly proposal. Last month, the board approved a separate referendum to ask taxpayers for about $52 million for school renovations, particularly school safety features.

But the groups came to different conclusions about how much money the district needs for operating expenses.

The chamber released an analysis last week that called for $477 million in cuts, including eliminating busing for high school students, reducing the number of teachers, closing schools, and cutting central office staff. The recommendation also included a $100 million tax increase to fund 16 percent raises for teachers.

District officials, however, say the cuts proposed by the chamber are too aggressive and cannot be accomplished as quickly as the group wants. The administration and board members spent nearly an hour of the meeting Tuesday discussing the chamber plan, why they believe it’s methodology is wrong, and the devastating consequences they say it would have on schools.

Even if the $315 million plan proposed by the district passes, it will come with some sacrifices compared to the initial plan. Those cuts could include: reduced transportation for magnet schools, field trips, and after school activities; school closings; increased benefits costs for employees; and smaller pay increases for teachers and employees.

The district did not make a specific commitment to how much teacher pay would increase if the amount asked for in the referendum is approved, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the funds would pay for consistent raises.

“We would be at least addressing inflationary increases and cost of living, but we hope that we can be higher than that,” said Ferebee. “It would depend a lot on what we are able to realize in savings.”

The school board’s decision to rebuff the chamber’s recommendation puts the district in a difficult position. The chamber has no official role in determining the amount of the referendum, but it could be a politically powerful ally.

Last week, Al Hubbard, an influential philanthropist and businessman who provided major funding for the chamber analysis, said that if the district seeks more money than the group recommended, he would oppose the referendum.

The total tax increase would vary for each homeowner within district boundaries. The operating increase would raise taxes by up to $0.28 for every $100 of assessed property value, while the construction increase would raise taxes by up to $0.03 per $100 of assessed property value.

On school finance

Facing tax opposition, Indianapolis leaders may settle for less than schools need

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One day before the Indianapolis Public Schools Board is expected to approve a ballot measure to ask taxpayers for more funding, district officials appealed to a small group of community members for support.

Fewer than 40 people, including district staff, gathered Monday night at the New Era Church to hear from leaders about the need for more school funding. School board members plan to vote Tuesday on whether to ask voters to approve a tax hike to fund operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, in the November election. But just how much money they will seek is unknown.

The crowd at New Era was largely supportive of plans to raise more money for district schools, and at moments people appeared wistful that the district had abandoned an early plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, which one person described as a “dream.”

Martha Malinski, a parent at School 91 and a recent transplant from Minneapolis, said the city appears to have a “lack of investment” in education.

“Is the money that you are asking for enough?” she asked.

Whatever amount the district eventually seeks is likely to be dramatically scaled down from the first proposal. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has spent more than seven months grappling with the reality that many Indianapolis political leaders and taxpayers don’t have the stomach for the tax increase the district initially sought.

“We are trying to balance what’s too much in terms of tax burden with the need for our students,” said Ferebee, who also raised the possibility that the district might return to taxpayers for more money if the first referendum does not raise enough. “If we don’t invest in our young people now, what are the consequences and what do we have to pay later?”

After withdrawing their initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, district officials spent months working with the Indy Chamber to analyze Indianapolis Public Schools finances and find areas to trim in an effort to reduce the potential tax increase. But the district and chamber are at odds over how aggressive the cuts should be.

Last week, the chamber released a voluminous list of cuts the group says could save the school system $477 million over eight years. They include reducing the number of teachers, eliminating busing for high schoolers, and closing schools. The chamber has paired those cuts with a proposal for a referendum to increase school funding by $100 million, which it says could raise teacher salaries by 16 percent.

District officials, however, say the timeline for the cuts proposed by the chamber is not realistic. The analysis mostly includes strategies suggested by the district, said Ferebee. But steps like redistricting and closing schools, for example, can take many months.

“Where we are apart is the pace, the cadence and how aggressive the approach is with realizing those savings,” he said.

Not everyone at the meeting was supportive of the administration. Tim Stark, a teacher from George Washington High School, asked the superintendent not to work with charter high school partners until the district’s traditional high schools are fully enrolled. But Stark said he is still supportive of increasing funding for the district. “It is really important for IPS to get the funds,” he said.

The chamber has no explicit authority over the tax increase but it has the political sway to play an influential role in whether it passes. As a result, Indianapolis Public Schools officials are working to come to an agreement that will get that chamber’s support.

A separate measure to fund building improvements was announced by the district in June and incorporated into the chamber plan. That tax increase would raise $52 million for building improvements, primarily focused on safety. That’s about one-quarter of the initial proposal.