Asking for the stars Howard County: If Centennial High wants surplus planetarium, it should pay for it.

November 15, 1995

HERE'S A PROPOSAL for the Howard school system: Every school that wants to get the vintage 1960s planetarium that is soon to be removed from Wilde Lake Middle should start a fund-raiser. Parents and teachers can get together and hold drives, and the school that raises the most money wins. This would be a fair, and ultimately cheaper, way of disposing of the planetarium while simultaneously fostering school spirit.

What school officials should not consider is using public dollars to remove the planetarium from Wilde Lake Middle and transfer it to Centennial High. So far, Centennial is the only school to express an interest in getting the apparatus, although no one has said how school officials would pay for it.

The high school's desire to have it is understandable, the arguments for getting it are strong. First, Centennial's staff includes one of the few people who knows how to operate the planetarium. Second, the school has a strong track record in academics with high SAT scores, a significant number of National Merit Scholars and a high percentage of graduates who go on to major in the sciences in college.

As solid as those arguments are, however, they do not overcome the real impediment to moving the planetarium to Centennial: money. School funding is expected to be extraordinarily tight in coming years with federal and state cuts. It is unlikely that officials will want to support this idea at the expense of more pressing needs. Already, the school system has dismantled its only other planetarium, at Patapsco Middle. The Wilde Lake facility hasn't operated since 1991, when a budget crisis forced the elimination of an astronomy teaching position.

It is unclear what it would cost to reassemble the Wilde Lake planetarium at Centennial, but to build one anew -- with dome and projector -- could cost $200,000.

There seems to be disagreement among administrators about the wisdom of giving Centennial what it wants. We hope frugal minds prevail. As long as there is a Maryland Science Center nearby in Baltimore and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, one school with its own planetarium is a luxury the school system can ill afford. Still, if school officials and parents want it badly enough, let them pay for it.

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