Crime

Arrest, closure leaves Grover Beach's Exploration Station in upheaval

The Exploration Station in Grover Beach.
The Exploration Station in Grover Beach. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The Exploration Station’s science center in Grover Beach has been temporarily closed and a former employee accused of forgery and embezzlement, according to authorities, amid what’s become a tumultuous time for the organization.

Board members confirmed this week that they will shutter the Exploration Station’s science center — where children learn about technology and science through hands-on activities — for two months as the nonprofit conducts a top-to-bottom review and reorganizes, said board President Anita Shower.

The board has also reportedly canceled its annual fundraiser and reduced staff.

In the embezzlement case, Stacy Halvorsen, 40, of Arroyo Grande, turned herself in to the Grover Beach Police Department on June 5, police Chief Jim Copsey said. She was arrested and booked at San Luis Obispo County Jail, then posted bail.

Grover Beach police submitted its case to the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office, which is reviewing it, officials there said. Charges have not been filed. However, an arraignment hearing has been set for July 31.

Halvorsen could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday. Her attorney, Matthew Guerrero, was also not immediately available for comment.

Copsey said Halvorsen was arrested on suspicion of two counts of forgery for checks, including a $2,135 check in October 2012 and a $426 check in May 2013. Additional details on the alleged forgery were not available Wednesday.

Copsey said the Exploration Station brought in an additional 16 checks that are being studied.

Halvorsen had worked there since 2012, according to a tax form filed with the IRS listing her as one of two part-time paid employees that year.

Court records show that Halvorsen was convicted of three misdemeanor counts of nonsufficient funds from the district attorney’s bad check division in April 2003 (one charge) and November 2004 (two charges).

She pleaded no contest to all three charges.

Shower was not available for additional comment Wednesday.

On Tuesday, however, she said the Exploration Station’s temporary closure will give the board time to conduct a thorough review of the organization’s programs, staff, hours and other issues.

The abruptness of the board’s decision to close the center — made during a closed-session board meeting on July 16 — surprised and concerned longtime volunteers, who said the board also laid off one other paid staff member.

“There was quite a bit of activity going on and to suddenly just stop — that seemed odd to us,” said Claude Hartman, a retired physics teacher who has volunteered there since 2009.

Shower said that two of the Exploration Station’s programs, Computers 4 Youth and the electronic recycling center, would continue while the science center is closed. A summer robotics camp will continue as scheduled this week.

“We decided in order to make this better for the community we need to reorganize what we have and see if we can lift it up a little bit,” Shower said. She anticipated that the process will take about two months.

“You look at everything that’s there, everything that encompasses the station and review it,” Shower added. “Could this be better or bigger, should this be at a different time, should we offer more or less, who else can we bring in, how do we involve the teachers and the schools?”

The Exploration Station is located at 867 Ramona Ave., inside a building that formerly housed Grover Beach’s city hall and fire station.

In the 1990s, local philanthropists Cliff Clark and his late wife, Mary Lee Clark, supported a goal to form a nonprofit to buy the building and develop a youth facility.

A nonprofit organization, the South County Family Education and Cultural Center, was formed in 1999. In 2001, educational programs were introduced to target youth between the ages of 9 and 13 during after-school hours and vacations, according to the station’s website.

The interactive children’s science center opened in 2010, said Hartman, who built some of the exhibits. He said the organization’s small budget has prevented it from making major changes to the exhibits more frequently.

The nonprofit brought in $80,953 in 2012, according to tax documents filed with the IRS. The center’s two part-time paid employees that year included Halvorsen and Tosha Punches, the program director. At its height, there were five paid employees.

The Exploration Station’s website also lists Deborah Love as executive director, but she’s a volunteer, not a paid employee.

Shower said she didn’t know whether the staff members would return once the science center reopens. She said Punches was out on leave and added, “We paid her what we owed her.”

She could not be reached for additional comment Wednesday on whether Punches was laid off.

Hartman said he watched last Saturday as Punches was asked to leave, and observed her cleaning out her desk and handing over her keys. He told the board members present that he would quit if they let Punches go. After receiving no response, he turned in his shirt and keys as well.

Punches declined to comment Wednesday except to say that she hopes the board adheres to its unique mission — to bring science and education into the lives of children and families in the community. She said she was told she was being laid off because the science center was being immediately closed.

“It’s a huge community asset,” she said. “There are so many families who have been positively affected by our programs. I hope the community will get behind the efforts to reopen it and support the growth and sustainability of the children’s science center.”

Hartman said the organization relies on revenues from its electronic recycling program and donations, including an annual fundraiser, but has never had a major sponsor or created an endowment to allow it to expand or offer more programs.

He said the board has canceled its annual Chemistry of Cocktails fundraiser this year, normally held in November. Shower could not be reached for comment on this.

Despite this, Hartman said Punches sold about 30 new family memberships in the past two months. The center has about 130 family memberships, Hartman said.

In 2012, about 1,800 people were recorded as paying to visit the science center, which occupies a 1,400-square-foot area where the fire engines were once housed, he said.

“I gave the board a presentation a year ago this March concerning what they were going to do because they had been open four years and very little had changed,” Hartman said. “I was concerned as to what the future direction was going to be.”

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