DECATUR, Ga. -- An entire generation of school children have checked the bridgework of the the iron cast tyrannosaurus rex skull at the entrance to the Fernbank Science Center -- a facility that very nearly lost its funding this month.

"I mean it's an actual Apollo 6 shuttle!" gushed Kimba Armbrust-Kohler, who was standing near the Command Module of the last test flight of the Apollo program with her son and daughter at Fernbank Friday. "How could you not want to see that? It went up into space. And the meteorites that have come down, over there. It's pretty impressive. It'd be a shame if that went away."

Easily confused with a nearby natural history museum of the same name, the Fernbank Science Center is funded by the cash-strapped DeKalb County school system. Today, its backers are counting their blessings, because the school board Thursday agreed to restore most of the budget of a facility some now consider a luxury.

"It could be considered a luxury. I think it's a very valuable luxury," said Faithe Haeck, who was volunteering at a Fernbank summer camp. "And I think that puts DeKalb County a step ahead."

Although Fernbank lost forty percent of its DeKalb County funding, backers say this facility may actually come out ahead in the long run, because the budget crisis has freed the Fernbank Science Center to seek donations and endowments from outside the school system. Until now, backers say Fernbank's longtime relationship with the nonprofit Fernbank Inc. had constrained it from developing other financial arrangements.

DeKalb schools spokesman Walter Woods says the budget crisis moved Fernbank to look elsewhere for funding. "We've already started talking with some partners in higher education, in the private sector and other partners around the metro area that have an interest in science education," Woods said. Those talks will continue, he said.

When asked if it would "be appropriate for the county to cut Fernbank loose and let somebody else with more money run it," Woods said: "That's to be determined."

Friday, children toyed with helicopter-type rotors at a day camp funded by the aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. Fernbank may begin depending more on science oriented businesses and universities in years ahead to stay open -- in order to stay out of the teeth of local politics.

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