Thomas Dolby’s 1982 hit She Blinded Me with Science, played over a sound system as people concerned about the fate of the Fernbank Science Center congregated on an adjacent sidewalk June 18.
In what has been a long and contentious budgeting process, the DeKalb County School District (DCSD) proposed drastic cuts to make up a for a projected $85 million shortfall due to declining property tax values.
DCSD officials released an updated list June 11, which proposes to cut the science center’s budget by $3.2 million. School spokesman Walter Woods said the center would remain open and still have programs for hands-on learning about science and nature “but both 56 employees and programs would be reduced.”
In May, the DeKalb County School Board’s Budget, Audit, Finance and Facilities Committee produced a tentative list of budget cuts that included closing the science center to save approximately $4.7 million, an idea which was abandoned after residents voiced concerns during public budget hearings.
More residents, community members and DCSD students crowded in front of the science center, carrying signs with slogans such as “Stand back, I’m going to try science” and “Save science in DeKalb.” Dolby’s chart-topping tune was a fitting backdrop as high school student Cory Grober started speaking.
“When I was a freshman I heard about STT—the science, tools and technology program,” Grober told the crowd. “It turned out to be probably one of the best educational experiences of my life.”
Grober said throughout the rest of his high school career he volunteered with the center, which fostered an interest in ornithology, herpetology and animal and food sciences.
“I really enjoyed my time here and learned a lot. Now, I’m going to study biology at GCSU and hopefully transfer to the University of Western Ontario where I plan on studying ornithology,” Grober said. He said without the influence of the center his life would most likely be going in a completely different direction.
High school student Sara Cronan, who was first introduced to the center on a field trip during middle school, said she didn’t know how much of a “gem” the science center was until she came back and enrolled in a class the center offered during her freshman year of high school.
“The people aren’t just school staff, they work in the field and some of them are college professors,” Cronan said. “If the board cuts us we’ll have a massive brain drain—once these people are gone we’re not going to get them back.”
“Save Fernbank,” Cronan said amid raucous cheers and applause.
The center, located off Heaton Park Drive, has an estimated annual reach of 160,000 students in DCSD through hands-on activities, field trips or off-site science instruction.
Marshall Orson, co-president of the Emory LaVista Parent Council, is also running for a seat on the DCSD Board of Education. Orson agrees the district needs to do some “belt-tightening” but he said drastically cutting funding for the science center wasn’t the best decision.
“You want to avoid making a decision that will have long-term devastating effects,” Orson said. “There can be some belt-tightening here but you don’t cut it by two-thirds—maybe you cut 10 percent of the budget.”
Orson said he’s been an advocate for the center for the past several years and he thinks school board members too often look at costs during the budgeting process and ignore the benefits of a funding area such as the science center.
“An institution like this provides the types of resources and programs that aren’t [offered] anywhere else,” Orson said.
The DeKalb County School Board was expected to finalize the budget at a special called meeting June 20.