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Academy of Science is cutting dozens of jobs, mine included. SF should ask why

As execs rake in bonuses, beloved planetarium shows and school programs face the axe. Is mismanagement dimming the city's brightest scientific light?

A group of people stands inside an underwater tunnel at an aquarium, looking up at various fish swimming overhead and one person pointing upwards.
Source: Paul Sakuma/AP Photo

By Blue Polansky

Many people go their entire lives without finding their dream job. For the past short but amazing seven months, I’ve been living my dream to be under the stars as a presenter in the Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences. I still get choked up under that dome—it’s a rewarding experience to present shows about the universe and Earth. I get to educate guests about astronomy and see kids’ eyes light up when I tell them they could be scientists someday. 

Tragically, the academy is about to lose this unique offering. Thirty-eight people have accepted a voluntary severance package and four others, including me, are expected to be laid off soon. The guided planetarium shows will end, along with all the academy’s popular teacher professional development programs. The academy’s executive director, Scott Sampson, told staff in April that the academy is facing severe financial challenges and would need to cut labor costs by $4 million. A voluntary severance package was widely offered with almost no official information; some of us were told our positions were being considered for elimination.

Last summer, after widespread frustration with management’s lack of transparency, including how they handled layoffs and rehiring post-pandemic, my colleagues formed a union, Cal Academy Workers United. Academy staff believe strongly in our work and are committed to our beloved San Francisco institution. My colleagues unionized to have a voice in important decisions about how the academy is run and ensure it lives up to its values and vision. 

Sadly, what’s happening now is fresh evidence of some of the very problems we sought to address. The academy could easily have preserved the programs on the chopping block by reducing executive compensation and recently added human resources positions. 

Since 2015, executive pay has ballooned from about 5% of the labor budget to nearly 10%. 

Last year, Sampson received a $145,000 bonus on top of his $484,458 salary despite the academy’s shaky financial standing. Academy leaders have continued to hire more HR people, to the tune of $2 million per year—half the $4 million in labor costs they claim need to be cut. But none of these new positions is on the chopping block like my $40,000 a year full-time position. 

Management has also failed to pursue other funding opportunities. Last month, Supervisor Myrna Melgar questioned academy Chief Financial Officer Jim Gohary about why he has not tried to secure an innovation grant with the school district to cover the academy’s current $200,000 annual cost for the Bayview Science Institute. The renowned teacher professional development program is among those being eliminated. 

According to labor law, management is required to negotiate changes like cutting entire programs with our union, yet they’re moving forward without doing so. Our union will file unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which could eventually require the academy to rehire or provide back pay for those of us who were involuntarily laid off, though the legal remedies take many months or even years. 

But the effects on the academy’s guests and partners will be immediate.

It didn’t need to be like this

Despite senior leadership’s track record of questionable financial stewardship—including decisions to refinance bonds that led to interest payments jumping from $1.7 million in 2022 to $8.2 million in 2023—workers are ready to partner with them to protect critical programs and safeguard what makes the academy such a special place. 

As Melgar pointed out in the same budget hearing, the academy’s workers are its greatest assets. We attract visitors and make science come to life at the museum. 

Unlike most large planetariums in the United States that are fully automated, our programs are specially designed to cut away from the recorded shows to go deeper into science and astronomy. We do presentations outside the dome, like Tour of the Solar System and The Sun and Space Weather and take guests to the rooftop for telescope viewing. We have been encouraged to bring our own personalities to our presentations. We are a team of passionate, talented people who love educating others about astronomy.

Without pushback, these programs may not be the last to be cut. We encourage all San Franciscans and those who care about protecting the most vital programs at the California Academy of Sciences to raise questions about these decisions—and restore the human touch to the Morrison Planetarium.

Blue Polansky is a presenter at the Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences who uses art to educate about space. She has a background in biology and research.

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