Judge: Univ. of Northern Iowa Can Close Price Lab School

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa Board of Regents can close a public school run by the University of Northern Iowa, a judge ruled Monday, rejecting a lawsuit that sought to keep the award-winning school open.

Senior Judge Alan Pearson in Waterloo released an order Monday dismissing a lawsuit filed by supporters of Malcolm Price Laboratory School, who argued the regents did not have the power under state law to close it. Pearson said the regents did not exceed their power and lawmakers accepted the closure by failing to pass legislation this spring to keep it open.

The decision means the school will close Saturday, ending an era in which the school served as the center of UNI's popular teacher training program for decades.

The regents voted 8-0 in February to accept UNI President Ben Allen's proposal to close the school June 30, saying it had become too expensive to operate. UNI plans to partner with neighboring public school districts to train education majors in their classrooms — the same schools where most of the 350 Price Lab students will likely enroll this fall. The school had students from preschool through high school.

The closure was met with protests from students, parents, alumni, employees and Democratic lawmakers, who praised the lab school's small class sizes and cutting-edge educational research. But Republicans praised Allen and the regents for making tough decisions to cut costs and set priorities after years of budget cuts to higher education.

In March, a group of 37 supporters of the school, including parents and teachers, filed the lawsuit aimed at keeping it open. They argued the regents could not close the school under a 2009 law, which required the board to establish and operate a prekindergarten to 12th grade "research and development school" at Price Lab within three years.

Pearson said the bill did not take away the board's long-standing authority to open or close laboratory schools, and the requirement did not take effect until July 1, 2012, the end of the three-year transition.

"At the time of its action, the board had the authority to close a laboratory school and it limited its decision to that purpose," he said. "The research and development school did not exist and (the law) provides no basis for interfering with the exercise of the board's discretion in closing the Malcolm Price laboratory school."

Pearson also repeatedly noted that Iowa lawmakers were in session when the board voted to close the school but declined to pass proposals that would have kept it open or set aside money for its operations.

"The Legislature's failure to intervene following the announcement of the closure decision demonstrates that it was content to accept the board's authority to close the laboratory school," he wrote.

An attorney for the school's supporters, Tom Frerichs, said he was confused by the ruling, because it did not say whether the board would be required to follow the 2009 law and operate the school after July 1. He said he planned to ask Pearson to clarify, and, if Pearson declined, to appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Board of Regents praised the ruling and said it would allow UNI to continue its plans to make changes to its teacher training program. Board President Craig Lang thanked Allen "for his leadership and vision in making difficult choices that will enhance the excellence of the College of Education."

UNI spokeswoman Stacey Christensen said university officials are in the process of emptying the building and redistributing supplies and furniture to other departments on campus. She said a day care for children of UNI staff and students will remain there through the summer before relocating in the fall.

She said the school does not have firm plans for what to do with the building in the future.
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