CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- February brought a flurry of activity for University of Northern Iowa officials as they wrestled with the decision to close Malcolm Price Laboratory School and make steep academic cuts.
Among the pressing concerns were establishing time lines for working with employees, legislators and the public, as well as crafting the message to show the university was repositioning itself for the future.
The lab school's fate was still in play in the week or two leading up to UNI President Ben Allen's Feb. 22 announcement he would recommend closure to the Iowa Board of Regents.
Last week The Courier, television station KCRG and the Cedar Rapids Gazette received more than 2,200 pages of email documents from Allen, Provost Gloria Gibson and College of Education Dean Dwight Watson from Dec. 1 to March 7. Emails regarding the Price Lab decision were made available under open records laws.
The way forward was suggested in an outline for a Feb. 13 meeting including state Department of Education Director Jason Glass, Allen, Gibson, Watson, Board of Regents member Katie Mulholland and Brenda Buzynski and Pat Geadelmann, both of whom work in the president's office.
Those documents indicate the group was still considering closing the school after the 2012-13 school year. That outline appeared to show an opinion from Glass that changes to the Iowa Code would be necessary to close the school and that Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal had indicated he might not be able to change the code until the 2013 legislative session.
At that meeting, the parties involved were set to discuss three options for announcements.
The first was announcing a $2 million immediate budget cut to the lab school and that UNI would likely recommend to the Board of Regents in September that the school be closed in 2013.
A second option was to talk about how the vision for conducting research and development had changed and a distributive model would work better. Therefore, pending code changes, the school would close in 2012.
The final option was announcing budget cuts and saying UNI would be assessing the viability of Price Lab School.
In preparation for that mid-February meeting, Glass made recommendations to share the budget problems and start discussions with the community now.
That document also noted the Board of Regents "will expect innovation to come out of this change."
Later that week Allen met with campus groups and two newspaper editorial boards to announce big changes were coming to the university. He said academic programs would be cut and closing the lab school was on the table.
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The following week, after more discussion about whether the Legislature would be needed to close the school, Allen announced he would recommend it close June 30.
As late as Feb. 7, Watson addressed an email to Allen and Gibson that shared the latest budget models from UNI budget director Bruce Rieks. At that point it appeared Watson was not yet convinced the school should close.
"Ben and Gloria, here are the budget models from Bruce. I think with this model, we could maintain the school. I would love to discuss this with you Provost before our meeting on Friday ..." Watson wrote.
The issue of whether the lab school should close this year or in 2013 seemed to hinge on whether legislative action was needed. Eventually, in the days leading up to the Feb. 27 vote of the Board of Regents, the board office determined it could be done without legislative approval.
In a Feb. 24 email from Geadelmann to Allen, she indicates an early agenda for the special regents meeting included two components, one to close the lab school and a second requesting legislative action to close the school.
"On another front, they are seriously considering removing the second part of the request related to the legislative action from the docket and only vote to close the school," Geadelmann wrote.
The Board of Regents voted 8-0 on Feb. 27 to close the lab school, and board President Craig Lang stated the board believed it was in its power to do so without legislative action.
Top UNI officials showed concerns in emails about keeping UNI as a premier teacher education and education research facility. In addition, they had numerous conversations about how to keep the university's reputation in those areas from taking a hit.
In the same Feb. 24 email from Geadelmann to Allen, the assistant wanted to be clear that UNI remain the designated leader in education research and development. She said board staff indicated UNI could simply not open the school in 2012-13 by not enrolling students or hiring teachers. In that case, Geadelmann said, the board would request the Price Lab language be removed from the Iowa Code starting in the fall of 2012 in more routine code clean-up measures.
"They also question whether we need R & D in the code. ... We can do R & D without it. I said that we wanted the official designation as the state R & D entity, not have someone else claim it, as well as to secure the partnership with the (Department of Education.) They say the board could also designate the center," noted Geadelmann's email.
In the two weeks leading up to the closure announcement, communications spelled out talking points for top administrators regarding how changes to the research and development model will continue UNI's leadership in teacher education.
In one email, university public relations staff advised Watson on talking points for a newspaper interview. It stressed the need for a positive outlook and an emphasis on UNI's confidence it can deliver on its mission.
"Let's not dwell on the past, but position ourselves for the future. ... Explain that the R&D can still happen via a think tank or virtual type model. ... Assure parents and UNI students that our program will remain premier," were among points UNI spokeswoman Stacey Christensen stressed to Watson prior to a March 2 interview.