Budget woes cost Indianapolis its last Challenger Center

A program designed to inspire school children to learn science that grew out of national mourning following a space shuttle disaster is now gone from Indianapolis, a victim of budget cuts.

Last month, about a half dozen key players—former Superintendent Don Stinson among them—who helped bring the Challenger Learning Center to Decatur Township in 2004 gathered to bid it farewell after just more than a decade of providing simulated space missions for Indiana children.

“As we move on in science, things change,” Stinson said, “but we have a great memory here.”

Decatur’s center is the second in the Indianapolis area to close—Brownsburg closed its center in 2012—leaving the city without a Challenger Center. The nearest now requires a two-and-a-half hour drive to Hammond.

Nobody wanted the centers to close, but changes in state funding in Indiana probably made it inevitable.

Honoring the Challenger crew

An outgrowth of the 1986 Challenger disaster—the shuttle exploded on launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., killing a crew that included the much-touted first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe— there are more than 40 Challenger centers across the country.

McAuliffe, a New Hampshire social studies teacher, was chosen in a national search to be the first teacher astronaut on the doomed mission.

In memory of the crew, Challenger centers aimed to give students a feel for what it’s like to be part of a shuttle mission.

On field trips, students who visit the centers craft and execute a simulated mission, such as launching a probe into a comet. They play roles ranging from mission control monitors to sitting in the pilot seat of a mock shuttle.

“As a principal, having students able to go there, it was truly putting action in learning,” said Matt Prusecki, who is now Decatur’s superintendent. “Students came away learning more but also appreciating an experience they may always remember.”

Tax caps squeeze funding

Managing a Challenger center got tougher for Indiana school districts after 2010.

That year, the Indiana legislature sought to make property taxes, which sometimes shifted up or down unexpectedly for homeowners when their home values changed, more steady.

Tax caps were the result: homeowners could not pay more than one percent of the total assessed value of their property in property taxes.

While this stabilized tax bills, it made funding for some school services that still are paid by property taxes, such as transportation, less stable.

Before the change, the tax rate rose when the assessed value of a home dropped, so schools and local governments could still collect the same amount of money. But with the caps, the tax rate was fixed at one percent, which means revenue might fall behind what schools and government need to support the services they pay for.

When a district hits the maximum amount it can collect in property taxes, money can run short as expenses still grow.

That’s what happened to Decatur. The district could no longer afford to subsidize the center.

“We had to make $20 million in cuts in four years,” Prusecki said.

So two years ago, the district handed the center over to the Central Indiana Educational Service Center.

A long shot plan fails

CIESC’s Executive Director Kevin Caress said his organization, a coalition of 21 school districts, tried to make the center break even.

It set financial benchmarks for the center to cut costs and raise revenue to reduce the $60,000 to $80,000 cost of subsidizing it each year.

“We did not meet those benchmarks even though we made substantial cuts,” Caress said. “The major issue is how do you sustain a center like this? How do you make it work?”

Besides the school funding changes, the slow economy since 2008 also hurt the center’s ability to attract field trips from schools. A half-day session at the center cost $600 for 30 children, with a $100 discount for districts that bought annual memberships.

Tighter school district budgets both from funding changes and the economy meant fewer schools signed up for the experience. But CIESC still had to pay an annual fee to the national Challenger Center organization and foot the bill for expensive upgrades to software and equipment.

As word got out that the center was likely to close, students in some schools began letter writing campaigns and fundraisers, but it was too late.

The center formally closed at the end of May and equipment is now being dismantled and shipped off to be used at other centers around the country.

“It’s a valuable program,” Caress said. “We had great people doing it. But we couldn’t subsidize it any longer.”

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