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UPDATE: OCC Trustees Vote to Replace Planetarium Director

Board approves letter notifying current director that contract will not be renewed, but votes to retain position as new business model reportedly in plans

UPDATE: OCC Trustees Vote to Replace Planetarium Director

UPDATE, 3:30 p.m.: In a statement released Saturday afternoon, the Ocean County College Board of Trustees affirmed its decision to end the contract of Gloria Villalobos, the current director of the college's Robert J. Novins Planetarium:

"The Board of Trustees stands behind the action taken at today’s meeting for the non-renewal of the employment contract for 2013-2014 of Ms. Gloria Villalobos, Planetarium Director. However, having heard the recommendations of the planetarium community, the Board also confirms that, after July 1, 2013, the Planetarium will continue to be managed by an appropriately credentialed planetarium leader."

Previous: The Robert J. Novins Planetarium could be without a director starting July 1, after the Ocean County College Board of Trustees voted Friday to notify its current director that her contract will not be renewed.

The vote, which resulted in planetarium director Gloria Villalobos being officially notified that her position would be eliminated at the end of this school year, is the first step in the implementation of a new business model for the planetarium, according to those who spoke against the move at the trustees' meeting.

Moving to have a committee to manage the planetarium is a recipe for disaster, especially in the wake of the more than $4 million spent to renovate it in 2009 and 2010, said Richard Gamba, who was president of the Save The Planetarium Fund, which helped raise funds for the renovation.

"There has not been any planetarium that has operated successfully without a director," Gamba said.

Villalobos has been the planetarium's director since November 2001 and received a salary of $76,174 as of July 1, 2011, according to records on the DataUniverse site maintained by the Asbury Park Press. In addition to being the public face of the planetarium, she told the trustees that she handles a wide range of tasks that keep the planetarium operating, from taking reservations for shows to operating the planetarium equipment during presentations.

"Eliminating that salary is a quick fix to help the bottom line," Villalobos said, adding that doing so will create bigger problems long-term.

"What's needed is to let your director be a director," she said.

Details on the new business model and on why it proposes to eliminate the director's position were not released Friday by the college. OCC President Jon Larson and Vice President of Finance Sara Winchester went into a closed meeting with trustees immediately after the adjournment of the public meeting and were unavailable for comment.

Trustee Stephen Leone offered the only response to those who spoke, saying, "The administration is very committed to the success of the planetarium."

"We all share the same objective," Leone, who has been a big supporter of the planetarium, including making a significant donation to help fund the renovations. "The administration has given a lot of thought to this."

John C. Sahradnick, attorney to the board, said the vote by the trustees may not be the final decision. There is a legal requirement to notify contract employees of the college -- of which Villalobos is one -- by Dec. 15 if their contract will not be renewed, he said.

But that vote does not mean the trustees cannot change their minds and change the direction by voting again at another public meeting.

Those opposed to eliminating the director's position in favor of a committee running the planetarium said there was much that would be lost by eliminating Villalobos' job.

Gamba said moving to a committee to manage the planetarium is a recipe for disaster, especially in the wake of the more than $4 million spent to renovate it in 2009 and 2010.

 

Novins Planetarium staffers told the trustees that Villalobos typically works long hours, between outreach and day-to-day operations of the planetarium.

"She spent six months as the sole operator (of the equipment during a planetarium show) so that we as presenters could concentrate on presenting," one man said.

He noted it is Villalobos who knows the planetarium's systems inside and out, allowing her to quickly solve problems that arise.

Bil McClain, another presenter who has worked at several planetariums in the state, said the Novins Planetarium is state of the art, and in the two years since the renovated planetarium reopened, the public is starting to return and take in all the planetarium has to offer.

"If you lose the one person keeping it together, you're going to lose that," McClain said.

Word of the proposal to eliminate Villalobos' position was only released a week ago, and in that time, Gamba said, the Save the Planetarium Fund and the college have received a number of emails urging the college to retain a director for the planetarium. Many of those came from the national planetarium community, from peers of Villalobos, in support of keeping a director.

"Obviously this is a financial issue," Gamba said. "We can deal with financial issues in another way. We have before."

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