Emails Show Budget Discussions Central to Closing Malcolm Price Lab School

By Jon Ericson, The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Discussions among University of Northern Iowa officials regarding how much money could be saved by closing Malcolm Price Laboratory School include detailed estimates at least as far back as December, according to email documents.

The budget projections show a range of savings depending on how many faculty members would be retained.

Email conversations in January and February showed an active discussion about how to meet specific budget numbers for the university. On Jan. 4, Farzad Moussavi, dean of the College of Business, sent Provost Gloria Gibson an email talking about how steep cuts would be to other academic programs if Price Lab School were to remain open. At that point UNI academic leaders were looking at making $4 million in budget reductions.

"We cut pretty deep Tuesday and we now know it can yield around $1.5 million, if everything falls into place. This represents a pretty deep cut but does not even come close to half the amount that is needed. So we should either cut much deeper or bring PLS into the equation ..." Moussavi wrote in an email following a regular meeting between the provost and the deans in which budget shortfalls was discussed.

The Gazette, KCRG-TV9 and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier this week obtained more than 2,200 pages of email documents from Gibson, President Ben Allen and Dwight Watson, dean of the College of Education, about the decision to close Price Lab School on June 30. The emails were made available by request according to open records laws.

Watson told the Courier earlier this month the decision to close the school was a financial one, a stance backed up by numerous emails discussing the budget aspect of closing the school.

"My support of this closing is based on the economic reality," Watson said.

This week Allen met with state legislators to discuss the financial situation at UNI. He said the university expects a $5 million shortfall for the next fiscal year. That number could go up or down depending on funding and tuition bills pending in the Legislature. He noted how UNI's state funding has gone from $98.3 million in the 2009 fiscal year to $74.7 million in 2012.

Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, has been critical of the Price Lab closure process, saying he would have preferred a more open discussion and to have the Legislature and general public be better informed. But he said there has been ongoing debate from some people in Cedar Falls and Des Moines about whether Price Lab School was an efficient way to deliver the teacher training and research and development components of the university's role.

"It wasn't a secret there were concerns about the value of Price Lab," Danielson said.

Danielson said money issues were included last fall in discussions among legislators and higher education officials about the school. Part of the concern was not only the existing budget, but concerns about the need for additional funding to carry out research and development at Price Lab.

In December, the university was reviewing budgets and determining the need for cuts. The possibility of closing the lab school was being entertained at the time and a lab school budget document contained notes asking if some building maintenance items should be deferred.

An analysis shared with Allen Dec. 12 showed possible savings of nearly $3.5 million by closing the lab school, but that figure was adjusted down to $2 million per year when it called for transferring more instructors to other positions in the university.

Those documents offered two budget options — one for retaining only tenure-track professors of assistant level or above and the smaller figure for keeping all tenure track faculty.

An undated document shared among Watson and Allen's emails detailed a timeline for actions starting Feb. 3 and discussed talking points, including the budget situations involved. The general fund showed operating costs for the current year at $5.6 million. Personnel costs made up nearly $4.5 million of that figure, with another $1 million for supplies and services and the remainder for financial transfers. That document showed $600,000 in savings by closing the building, except for the newer field house. The personnel section would eliminate some staff on term contracts, plus transfer five tenure track and 19 tenured professors to the College of Education and Curriculum and Instruction for a savings of $2 million.

Watson told the Courier that early discussions included slashing the lab school budget by about $2.5 million. The school's budget includes $2.3 million in state school aid funding and $3.2 million in general university funds. That action would have included major cuts to music, athletics and physical education at the school.

The university is developing plans for new teaching field experiences in areas schools. As part of that model, Watson said faculty will be retained to coordinate those field experiences.

The university offered early separation packages to 21 Price Lab faculty members, others will be reassigned in the university and some may be laid off. In addition, some employees on term contracts will be eliminated.

"There have been some employees who got their pink slips who will not be coming back," said UNI spokeswoman Stacey Christensen.

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