As student protests continue, future of BISD planetarium still up in the air

Sharon Rigsby

Protests by members of the Fine Arts Matters student organization continued Monday, June 30, despite an attempt by Jefferson County 172nd Civil District Court Judge Donald Floyd to unseat the current Beaumont Independent School District Board of Trustees that was looking to address a budget shortfall with, among other things, cuts to fine arts programs.

No action was taken by Floyd, however, who was unable to secure replacements for the board.

Students from the Fine Arts Matters club said that even if board members were removed, they were still concerned that the Reduction in Force (RIF) would affect several of their favorite teachers’ jobs.

“We see it as a win, but we’re still going to protest until we know for sure that everything is OK,” said West Brook High School senior Austin Bienvenu.

Bienvenu said many students feel like Ozen High School theater teacher Gina Martin was being unfairly targeted by BISD administrators.

“She’s the only theater teacher at Ozen, and they said that they weren’t going to cut teachers if they were the only ones at that position,” Bienvenu said.

However, Martin’s name was one of the names on the RIF list of teachers being cut. Bienvenu believes Martin aiding in the Fine Arts Matters club protests might have influenced BISD’s decision to add her name to the RIF list, although Martin told The Examiner on June 9 that she was only there as a mother and supporter of the students. Her two sons, Franklin and A.J. Martin, were participating in the Fine Arts Matters protest.

“Ms. Martin has been helping us a lot,” Bienvenu said. “She’s been doing a lot of parent sponsoring for us. We know a few other teachers from West Brook who have been targeted that were really big about petitioning. We’re still fighting for them. We want to make the board realize exactly what they’re doing. They are not thinking things through.”

In addition, Bienvenu said he is concerned about Sharon Rigsby’s position. Rigsby, whose name also appeared on the RIF list, is the planetarium teacher at the Murry J. Frank Planetarium.

“One of the fondest memories I have growing up is visiting the planetarium,” Bienvenu said. “I couldn’t wait for that field trip to the planetarium each year.”

The Murry J. Frank Planetarium is the closest planetarium for BISD students to visit, the next closest being the Burke Baker planetarium — 90 miles away in Houston — and is used to educate visitors from elementary school to high school age on astronomy, the night sky, and the position of the stars and planets.

Patsy Magee, BISD science supervisor, said that 9,000 to 10,000 students visit the planetarium annually, and that Rigsby, who has been working there for five years now, is irreplaceable.

“A lot of these are low socioeconomic kids who are never going to see a planetarium otherwise,” Magee said. “We have kids whose parents are never going to take them to a planetarium. When we look at the scores on our tests, the low category is Earth and Space. So what this planetarium does is take a very abstract concept and builds some concrete pieces so that kids can understand what Earth and Space is all about. Ms. Rigsby runs the planetarium, but when she walks out that door, for all practical purposes, the planetarium is shut down.”

Magee said Rigsby looks at each grade level’s Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) and works with those criteria that the students need to learn.

“She has a lab room here and does hands on activities to build the concrete skills these students need,” Magee said. “Then she brings them to the dome room to go even further. She does three shows a day.”

Magee said the planetarium is exclusively for BISD students and is not open to the public.

“We would love to do public (displays), but we can’t because of funds,” she said. “I have people calling me all the time asking, ‘Why don’t we have a public viewing? We would love to come to the planetarium.’ I think they should consider some (ideas) like that, but the problem still remains with the teacher. She’s a teacher and earns a teacher’s salary, so I can’t really ask her to open the planetarium up on Saturday because she wouldn’t be paid for it, and it wouldn’t be fair. I’m working really hard to find a grant, but haven’t found one yet. NASA used to have one, but they did away with it two years ago.”

Magee said that letting Rigsby go would essentially render the planetarium program nonexistent, adding that although Rigsby doesn’t have assigned classes outside the planetarium, she visits campuses throughout BISD to do demonstrations when buses aren’t able to bring the students to her.

“How can you use it if you are going to let the teacher go?” Magee posed. “If you were going to use it, you would keep the teacher. That means … the planetarium is now shut down. It’s kind of like the Fine Arts pieces. When you let a teacher go, you lose a program unless you have a teacher to teach that. Here we only have one teacher, and it’s her.”

Magee’s busy schedule, which includes visiting 30 BISD sites and working with teachers and students after school at usually four to five schools per day, would not allow her to take over the planetarium herself, she said.

Furthermore, Magee stated that BISD did not even allow her the opportunity to state her case for keeping the planetarium program.

“I know things have to be cut, but at least let me say these are all the things we do before making that decision,” she said. “I’ve been in this position for 20 years, and we have worked really hard to build the science program in this district.”

Rigsby said the planetarium helps build students’ critical thinking skills and helps them visualize abstract, scientific ideas.

“We’re teaching kids how to think and manipulate models,” Rigsby said. “What I am trying to work here is when students hear the words, they can start … building the models in their heads, so that they can problem solve … and be able to understand three-dimensional problems. Science is all abstract. When you come into a place like this, you can look at those things. We can get a better idea of how far away that star is. I can tie together science with history, with art, and with language.

“When you close this program down, that’s just one area they are not going to get.”

Rigsby said she doesn’t understand BISD’s reasoning for cutting the planetarium program.

“Budget wise it doesn’t really cost that much,” she said. “There’s my salary and maintenance, but they use this building for other purposes. They have meetings in here. Our biggest cost is transportation to get the kids here.”

“In that planetarium is a computer lab on the left-hand side that will have to stay,” Magee added. “The back room is also a computer lab. The air conditioner will still have to run, the electricity will still have to run regardless. That means the facility will still have to run.”

Magee said service to the planetarium’s equipment costs between $3,500 – 5,000 each year.

“We are looking at some issues with lighting pretty soon because the bulbs cannot be replaced because they no longer make them,” she said. “We’ve gotten several bids to upgrade that. But really it is just (Rigsby’s salary) and equipment maintenance.”

“Heartbroken” is the word Rigsby used to describe her emotions following the release of the RIF list, which brought the news that her position would be cut.

“That’s the only word I could come up with,” she said. “Five years ago the board said, ‘OK. We’ll let you go in and run it, and it’s been absolutely the best five years. There’s no other job like this. To lose it is just double heartbreaking. Losing your job is heartbreaking, but it’s a planetarium.”

Rigsby said if she had a chance to state her case as to why BISD should not cut her position she would tell administrators the planetarium is one place where she can spark students’ imagination and create a little bit of wonder.

“When kindergarteners come in for the first time, they walk in the door and they look up and say, ‘Wow!’” Rigsby explained. “They are amazed and they love it. A little flame has been sparked. If that’s not valuable, then cut it, but if that is something you want to see in your students, you really do need to keep this place going. If not in the capacity that it was before then … take a look at it and think of alternatives than just cutting it. Blindly chopping away is not going to fix things.”

Following Rigsby’s planetarium presentation, hundreds of protestors attended Monday night’s school board meeting to witness a motion to pass the layoffs of 109 employees, including Sharon Rigsby and Gina Martin, fail due to a lack of votes. BISD board member Mike Neil mentioned the planetarium during the meeting’s open discussion.

“We have a great facility here,” Neil commented to school district superintendent Timothy Chargois. “Is that something that we are going to be able continue to use, Dr. Chargois?”

“I don’t have any direct recommendations at this time,” Chargois responded.

Although the future of the planetarium remains unknown, the failure of the RIF to pass provided temporary hope to students like Austin Bienvenu — something the 17-year-old said he hasn’t felt in quite some time.

“I’m really excited about it right now,” Bienvenu said. “Now that this RIF is … discarded, the board of managers can put out a more accurate RIF list that tries to save more teachers’ jobs and keeps the RIF list as far away from the classroom as possible. It makes me so happy that so many other kids are going to get that opportunity to visit the planetarium.”

Bienvenu said that despite his excitement and the vote failing to pass Monday night, he and other students would continue to protest prior to each board meeting until a new RIF list surfaces and fears of losing more teachers subside.

The Murry J. Frank Planetarium is at 3370 North St. in Beaumont next to the BISD Administration building and is an extension of the Beaumont I.S.D. classroom, the BISD website states. It seats 62 in its 30-foot dome. For more information, visit www.bmtisd.com/planetarium.

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