Confusion Reigns Over Legal Authority to Close Price Lab

By Gregg Hennigan & Jon Ericson, Reporters; Gazette/KCRG/Courier

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Who has the authority to close the University of Northern Iowa's Price Lab School was a central question among university officials as the debate over the school's future unfolded last month, records show. That also is now the fundamental question in a lawsuit filed Tuesday seeking to stop the 350-student, preK-12 school from shutting down at the end of June.

"It is very confusing, as you can imagine," said Jeneane Beck, UNI's state relations officer, "but we still believe that we have that authority, or the board wouldn't have taken the action that it did."

The Iowa Board of Regents voted 8-0 on Feb. 27 to approve UNI President Ben Allen's recommendation that Price Lab be shut down.

Approximately 2,000 pages were released this week by UNI under an open-records request by The Gazette, KCRG-TV9 and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. The news outlets requested all correspondence to and from Allen, Provost Gloria Gibson and College of Education Dean Dwight Watson since Dec. 1, 2011, concerning the Price Lab closure. A request also was made of Allen concerning the UNI Museum, which also is to be closed. The Gazette, KCRG and the Courier partnered in reporting the story and paying the $1,532 fee charged by UNI to fulfill the open-records request.

The UNI documents indicate the closure process was unclear to UNI administrators before and after the mid-February announcement of Allen's recommendation.

In an undated document in Allen's records, the question of how fast the school should be closed was posed. The answer was that it's believed Iowa Code prevents the closure from happening and a code change needs to be pursued. Elsewhere in the same document, it said the regents "would have to 'close' the school — code changes are needed etc."

UNI spokeswoman Stacey Christensen referred all questions on the interpretation of Iowa Code and its relation to the Price Lab decision to the Board of Regents office. Regents' spokeswoman Sheila Doyle Koppin said the determination that the regents had the power to act was made by regents staff. She declined to discuss that process further because of the lawsuit.

The Price Lab closure, estimated to save $2 million annually, is one of a series of cuts Allen recommended and the Board of Regents recently approved to deal with budget challenges at UNI. Fifty-eight academic programs also are being eliminated.

The Price Lab decision was met with a strong backlash from the public and UNI education professors and students. In addition to being a school, Price Lab serves as a classroom training ground for education students and houses research and development programs.

The lawsuit — which names 37 educators, parents and residents as plaintiffs — argues that Iowa Code would have to be changed by an act of the Legislature to close the school.

Earlier this month, Black Hawk County-area legislators asked the Iowa Attorney General's Office for an opinion. That office on Wednesday said it would not proceed because of the pending litigation.

Part of the confusion on the issue is that two code sections are in play. Chapter 265 deals with laboratory schools. Another, 256G, calls for a research and development school housed in Price Lab.

Democratic state senators and representatives from Black Hawk County argue that Price Lab must exist to be the location for the research and development school.

The lawsuit says that because the Board of Regents was not granted the legislative authority to establish a research and development school, it does not have the power to "disestablish" the school.

In a Jan. 17 email, Allen wrote that a law firm could be contacted to see how much an impartial analysis of the code would cost.

The undated document previously mentioned said a legal view had been obtained as of Jan. 21 from the Simmons Perrine Moyer Bergman law firm in Cedar Rapids and that a formal opinion could be pursued. It's not clear if a formal opinion was issued.

In the days leading up to the announcement on Price Lab, UNI officials apparently weren't even sure when the closure could happen.

A Feb. 10 document again has questions on whether a code change is necessary to close the school. It also raises the possibility of reducing the lab's general fund support by $2 million next fiscal year, going to the regents in August or September to ask that Iowa Code be changed so research and development doesn't have to occur at Price Lab and then asking the regents to close Price Lab in June 2013.

Asked when the decision was made on when to close Price Lab, UNI's Christensen said at the Feb. 27 meeting when the regents voted to close the facility. That was a week after Allen's announcement that he was recommending the school close this summer.

The uncertainty over the Price Lab process was evident in a Feb. 24 email in which Beck, the state relations officer, told Allen that it was the opinion of the regents' office, "in consultation with the AG's office," that "it does not appear necessary for legislative approval to close Price Lab. It is under the purview of the Board of Regents."

Spokespeople from the regents' and attorney general's offices said Wednesday that no legal advice was provided to the regents.

Beck said she is new to her job and mistakenly thought it was standard procedure for the regents to ask for legal advice from the Attorney General's Office. She said other people realized her error and it did not play a role in the board's decision.

State Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, said he's not aware of how UNI and the regents came to the conclusion that they could close the school without the Legislature's input, which he believes is required. "They have shared nothing about their administrative and legal path forward," he said.

The documents also include a large number of emails from UNI professors and students, Price Lab parents and students, and members of the public. Most are opposed to Price Lab's closure, although there are some in support, including from professors.

The comments on the Price Lab announcement apparently outnumbered those when UNI dropped its baseball program in 2009. In a Feb. 23 email to his wife, Allen relays a conversation he had with Regent Dave Miles. "When I spoke with Dave Miles today, he said that the Price Lab closing broke the existing record held by the baseball decision for the number of emails," Allen wrote. "All but one was opposed to my recommendation."

UNI Records Request Highlights

Information from UNI Provost Gloria Gibson

Emails sent to UNI Education Dean Watson related to Price Lab School

Information from UNI President Ben Allen regarding Price Lab School


UNI Museum Material
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