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Discovery center layoffs mark change to privatization

The staff of nine full-time workers and 25 part-timers at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center have been told they will be laid off at the start of the new year, with a chance for some to return once the facility switches from a state-run attraction to one that is privately funded.

The layoffs, part of a yearlong reorganization, were made official in letters sent to the employees late last month, said Jeanne Gerulskis, the center’s executive director. Gerulskis said that the staff had been made aware of the upcoming changes through regular meetings and emails, but that concern became magnified once the job openings were announced this week.

“The really rocky part started once I posted the jobs and there looked like there wasn’t enough of them for everybody,” Gerulskis said. “As we got closer to the date, we’re looking more at the numbers and thinking this is how we’re going to have to start if we want to still be open.”

The biggest change will be the hiring of two yet-to-be-determined people who will be responsible for leading fundraising efforts, which became more vital once the state cut the facility from its budget last year.

Those positions, a chief financial officer and a development director, will probably be outside hires, as opposed to other jobs that might be filled by current staff members.

“I don’t believe anyone on staff is qualified for those slots,” Gerulskis said. “We’re going to start advertising for them next week.”

Gerulskis said she herself must reapply for the executive director job, but that is more of a formality because she has been told that the nonprofit corporation wants her back.

“I have to prove myself, but at this point the board is happy with the work I’ve done so far,” Gerulskis said. “I will have to be doing a really good job in this first year to make sure I stay on board. . . . If you don’t do what you need to do, it’s time to move along.”

Overall, the center will cut one full-time position, leaving a staff of eight for 2013. With two executives coming from outside, plus Gerulskis’s return, plus one employee already requesting a part-time slot, seven current staffers will be free to apply for the five available positions.

As for the rest of the staff, the center’s current 25 part-timers is the full-time equivalent of 6.91 employees. That number will drop to 6.09 at the start of the year. Team leaders will decide how to divvy up hours, and that, in turn, will translate into how many part-time workers the center eventually keeps.

“This means some people may choose to take a part-time position if they are not one of the people selected for full-time,” Gerulskis said. “Or they may decide to do something else, so we’ll know by the middle of next week who is going to start off as full-time and who will be either part-time or not going forward with us.”

In explaining the mood surrounding the center’s new phase of operation, Gerulskis unknowingly tossed out the perfect metaphor for a facility that features a planetarium, saying, “People are excited about the future, but at the same time it’s a scary leap into the unknown.”

The discovery center, like other state agencies, is a victim of the sagging economy and state budget cuts. Built 23 years ago as a tribute to Christa McAuliffe, the Concord High School teacher killed when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, it had received an annual $800,000 payment toward its $1.9 million budget.

The state has agreed to pay a one-time sum of $227,000 to assist with the transition to private funding, and will also pick up the yearly cost for debt services, initially a bond worth $4 million.

That leaves the bulk of the financial burden on newly appointed board members and new administrators, who must initiate aggressive fundraising campaigns, focus on promotion and advertising, and increase ticket sales through new exhibits such as a room dedicated solely to McAuliffe and the late Alan Shepard of Derry, the first American in space.

“The board is so new that we haven’t kicked into fundraising mode yet,” Gerulskis said. “Next week we will send a letter out to the community asking for assistance, but what we’ve been focused on is all the things you have to do to get up and running.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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