A new planetarium will open at Aberdeen High School next month, replacing one destroyed by vandals at the school 18 months ago.
The old planetarium, which was built in 1966 for $85,000, could not be repaired because replacement parts are no longer available. It was fully functional until it was damaged.
On Aug. 12, 1992, at least two people broke into the planetarium by smashing a window and jimmying two locked doors.
Once inside, the vandals smashed the star projector, a delicate piece of machinery that formed the heart of the planetarium. The globe, which projects the stars and planets on the ceiling, was repeatedly struck by a baseball bat or a fire extinguisher, police said.
The domed ceiling was dented when fire extinguishers and other heavy items were hurled into the air.
No one has been arrested in the incident.
The $300,000 cost of the new planetarium has the Harford County Council of PTAs worried about the school system's other two planetariums.
Their concern is that the 23-year-old planetarium at Southampton Middle in Bel Air and the 28-year-old one at Edgewood Middle are so old that they will have to be replaced when they break
Replacement parts are no longer made, said Dave Duchon, the planetarium teacher at Edgewood Middle.
"The planetarium operates just fine -- now. But the day will come when I turn the key and nothing happens," said Mr. Duchon.
Cathy Carmello, vice president of governmental affairs for the Harford County Council of PTAs, said the PTAs want the school system to start allocating money to replace the other two planetariums, instead of waiting until they break down.
Insurance is limited
Insurance paid about one-third of the replacement cost for the Aberdeen High planetarium, school officials said. However, insurance money won't be available for the other two.
Mrs. Carmello said replacing the equipment at Southampton and Edgewood Middle will cost about $250,000 for each.
Maintenance contracts on the three planetariums, which cost between $4,500 and $6,000 annually, are needed to keep them going for another 30 years, she said.
Mrs. Carmello said that adding equipment to transform each planetarium into a meteorological laboratory capable of tracking weather by satellite would cost another $9,000 for each.
"We are not asking for all the money at once, but we need to start planning now," she said. "What we want is a three- to five-year plan with money allocated each year."
Mrs. Carmello added that another concern is that it takes at least six months to install a new planetarium and that the contractors routinely ask for 10 percent down before starting work.
"If we have to go through the budget process -- after a planetarium shuts down -- that could mean adding an additional year until construction could begin," she said.
About 1,500 high school students at Aberdeen High and Havre de Grace High lost planetarium privileges because the other two planetariums were too crowded and too far away, Mr. Duchon said.
The school system says that new planetariums are near the bottom of their priority list, said Donald R. Morrison, school spokesman.
"Our first priority is to build new schools to relieve overcrowding and to renovate old schools. It's hard to justify spending money on planetariums when we have old schools all over this county that desperately need repairs," he said.
Mr. Morrison said parents at other schools have also asked for money for their priorities. For example, he said, Fallston parents are asking again for an auditorium and swimming pool for Fallston Middle, which opened in September.
State subsidies slashed
The building was supposed to have those amenities, but the state cut funding for the projects, he said.
Mr. Morrison said school officials have been asking for a new office building since 1970. He said central office personnel are now spread around the county because the 100-year-old office building on Gordon Street is too small.
"But our needs have to take a back seat to the needs of the students," he said.
Stuart Chapman, the planetarium teacher at Southampton Middle School in Bel Air, disagrees. He said money for planetariums is well spent because they last about 30 years if they are maintained properly.
He said planetariums get more use now when they were first built, especially for elementary-age children, because subjects, such as math and reading, may be combined.
For example, to mark Black History Month in February, Mr. Chapman and elementary teachers are working together to teach children that slaves escaping by the underground railroad had to use the stars to find their way north.
Slavery would previously have been covered in social studies or reading classes.
Elementary children will navigate by finding the "drinking gourd," now called the Big Dipper and Little Dipper and the North Star, Mr. Chapman said. The children will use flashlights to point out constellations, he said.
"When the planetariums were first introduced, they were used primarily to teach older students about physics and astronomy," he said.
Secondary students still use the planetarium to learn about more complex subjects such as the Earth's rotation, he said.
In the past, elementary children rarely visited the planetarium because teachers believed that they were too young to appreciate it, he said.