Middle school-age children stream in from all over Alaska eager to experience what for most will be the closest they'll ever come to the final frontier.
As of the end of June, almost 22,000 students and more than 400 educators from 176 different schools have come to the Chal-lenger Learning Center of Alaska since it opened in April 2000, participating in mock space shuttle missions and digesting a diet of physics and math made fun by center educators and the occasional visiting astronaut.
Wide-eyed youngsters aren't the only beneficiaries. Corporations have sent better than 3,600 of their employees to participate in mock missions in an effort to enhance leadership, communications and team-building skills important to success in business.
But unless center officials can secure a steady and reliable source of operating funds, there is a risk the center may have to shut its doors.
Federal dollars that largely paid for construction of the center are drying up as the federal deficit soars. The Alaska Legislature has never provided funding, except that which came through the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation, an entity now out of business following state budget cuts and other shifting of scarce state resources.
Now, center officials want to ask borough voters if they would be willing to pay the center's operating costs through a one-tenth mill property tax.
"This is a way for citizens to step up to the plate" and make a contribution toward a broader education for peninsula children, said Kenai Mayor John Williams, a center board member and its past president.
"Do we start paying for things that have been more or less granted to us by state and federal governments over the years?" he asked.
Williams said he believes there is widespread support for the center and voters would answer yes to the question.
Borough assembly member Betty Glick of Kenai has sponsored a resolution to put the issue before the voters this fall. It will be on the Aug. 5 assembly agenda.
Glick had sponsored an ordinance for introduction at the July 8 meeting, but the assembly ran out of time and the measure was never addressed. The resolution, which requires no formal public hearing, is meant to avoid the time crunch with the Aug. 5 ballot deadline. In other words, there would be no time to schedule and advertise a public hearing required by the ordinance.
If the resolution succeeds, Glick's original Ordinance 2003-32 would be introduced and amended to remove reference to the ballot issue, leaving intact specific amendments to the borough code necessary to establish the authority to provide funds to the center.
The resolution being introduced next week includes reference to the assembly's intention to set the mill levy at one-tenth mill, which would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $10 a year.
Whether the proposal will ever make it to the ballot may be in question. Support for the resolution appeared weak among assembly members the Clarion had reached by Friday afternoon.
"No. It's too centrally located for it to be a boroughwide issue," said Chris Moss of Homer. "I'm not convinced it is a boroughwide issue."
Assembly member Ron Long of Seward was similarly skeptical.
"For several reasons," he said. "It hasn't made the case that it requires this move, or that we'd be a better borough, or that our educational system would be further ahead by doing this."
Much has been made, Long added, of the so-called "golden triangle" of educational centers, including the Challenger Center in Kenai, the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward and the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center under construction in Homer, as well as the proposed North Pacific Volcano Learning Center in Anchor Point. If the Challenger Center is worthy of a property tax, the others likely have an equal claim.
"Maybe we should put them all on the ballot," Long said.
Assembly member John Davis of Kenai said he, too, opposes a ballot measure.
"My feelings are that when this first started and came down the pike with money from Sen. (Ted) Stevens and was promoted by the city of Kenai, there were to be no taxes," he said.
Assembly member Paul Fischer of Kasilof said he has a problem with using a resolution to place a measure on the ballot.
"I have heartburn with that one," he said, adding he had been leaning toward a "no" vote had the ordinance come up for introduction July 8.
Fischer said a petition drive would be a better vehicle for reaching the ballot because it would demonstrate popular support for the center. A petition drive could result in a special election, he said.
Assembly President Pete Sprague of Soldotna said the assembly has some history of passing such tax measures, such as the one-tenth mill that now goes to post-secondary education. He said he likely would vote to put the measure on the ballot, but he has doubts about its success there.
"I think it will be a difficult sell to pass it," he said.
Borough Mayor Dale Bagley, who has no assembly vote as to whether the issue makes it to the ballot via the resolution, said if he is presented with the choice in October, he's inclined to vote no.
"They said they would not be asking for operating funds," he said of the Challenger Center. "Now they are. I'm not happy about that. I'm not voting for a mill increase."
During testimony before the assembly in early April, Williams noted what he called "a pending cash-flow problem out on the horizon." He said future federal grants were always in question, especially because Sen. Stevens' term as chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee ends within the year and noted that the stumbling economy may limit private donations.
A boroughwide property tax would ease the financial burden. As an incentive to borough voters, Williams proposed that students from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District be eligible to attend and participate in center events, including flight missions, at no cost.
Given the extremely tight school budgets, many students' hopes of participating in missions are tied to their ability to raise funds independent of the district through bake sales and car washes, Williams said.
Emma Watson, president of the center's board of directors, has been involved in science education since 1964 and said it had been a dream of hers to see a Challenger Center built in Alaska since she first heard of the federal program. But while raising money for bricks and mortar was relatively easy, ensuring continuing funding is not.
"It's like trying to build an airplane while you're flying," she said.
She said the board would continue to search for new funding sources through grants and private donations.
The center is owned by Alaska Challenger Learning Center for Space Science Technology Inc., which rents the land on which it sits from the city of Kenai for $1 a year. It has just seen the completion of a second phase of construction adding a dormitory, a kitchen and additional classroom facilities, Internet services and a distance-learning studio. Built entirely with public money, the center currently is debt-free.
Public and private construction and operating money was easier to come by a few years ago. For instance, several grants through the National Aeronautics and Space Administra-tion provided the bulk of the construction money. A $285,000 grant came from the U.S. Department of Educa-tion.
Other large donations were provided by corporations such as British Petroleum, which gave $250,000, and ConocoPhillips, which gave $60,000. In all, fund-raising efforts managed to secure $1.5 million for construction from nongovernment sources, Williams said.
Challenger statistics, funding so far
Statistics help tell the story for the Challenger Learn-ing Center of Alaska. Below are figures regarding numbers of participants, operating costs associated with running missions and an overview of some of the fund-raising successes since the project was launched. Participant numbers below are as of June 30, 2003.
Number of participating schools since April 2000: 176
Number of students since April 2000: 22,406
Total including corporate participants: 26,084
Total from Kenai Peninsula School District: 6,218
Total from Anchorage School District: 6,308
Estimated annual operating cost: $400,000
Approximate cost per mission: $450-$500
Average number of missions annually: 200-250
Estimated number of missions possible: 400
Major grants through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration:
February 2002: $915,000 NASA grant for design and construction.
May 2001: $990,000 NASA grant covers three years of operating costs.
April 2002: $2.92 million NASA grant for construction
Examples of other major grants:
$285,000 from the U.S. Department of Education to establish distance education opportunities in remote villages. Hubs included Kotzebue, Bethel and Barrow.
$60,000 from ConocoPhillips paid for the "School Bus to Space Program" that took the Challenger Learning Center program on the road to Valdez and Fairbanks.
$250,000 from British Petroleum.
Private donations have contributed greatly to the Challenger Learning Center:
$1.5 million raised for construction.
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