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An Expensive Education

Marc Ringel is chairman of the UNC lab school's accountability committee.

A week after the University of Northern Colorado Laboratory School let out, Kristen Anderson's mind was on the summer activities that would keep her two young kids occupied for the next three months. Other parents were planning road trips, backyard barbecues and swimming lessons. No one was thinking about the school, much less the prospect of having to fight to keep it open.

But on May 31, the lab school sent letters home to parents informing them that the university would be severing its ties with the school, which, since 1892, has served as a training ground for teachers at UNC's esteemed education department, as well as a research lab for psychologists and educators to study how kids learn and how curricula are developed.

Now, parents and teachers were being told, the school would have one year to find another space. Jaws dropped. Heads shook. Summer plans ground to a halt.

There are approximately one hundred lab schools affiliated with universities across the country and another 28 internationally. In addition to working with their regular elementary and secondary-school students, teachers at these schools also instruct prospective teachers. UNC's lab school is unique because it teaches Kindergarten through twelfth grade, whereas most lab schools teach either Kindergarten through eighth grade or ninth grade through twelfth.

Although it has never been a public school in the manner of the schools within the Greeley-Evans School District, UNC's lab school isn't exactly private, either. Up until last year, it received 85 percent of its funding from the university, through money provided by the state legislature to institutions of higher education. Tuition -- about $800 a year per student -- covered the rest.

But two years ago, UNC president Hank Brown proposed that the 600-student lab school, which is located in an 86,000-square-foot building on campus, become a charter school. Parents were reluctant; they feared that UNC was trying to separate itself from the school. But Brown assured them it was a good thing, that becoming a charter school would bring in an additional $2 million annually from the state.

School principal Kathleen Milligan also helped convince parents that becoming a charter school was, in fact, a good thing, and so the school entered into an unusual charter agreement, signing a five-year contract with Greeley-Evans School District 6 but giving the university the power to enforce -- or break -- the charter. Now the school is funded entirely by state secondary-education dollars, although UNC still provides $1 million a year worth of services such as building maintenance.

As it turned out, UNC did separate itself from the school, and the new arrangement made it easier to do. Just a year after the lab school became a charter, UNC Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Marlene Strathe decided that the school no longer fit in with the university's mission and that its $1 million annual subsidy should be discontinued at the end of the following academic year. She also said the school would have to find another home and sign another charter pending approval from the university's board of trustees on July 12.

"The University of Northern Colorado, originally established with a singular mission in teacher education, has emerged as a comprehensive, mature baccalaureate institution with a specialized purpose as a graduate research university," Strathe wrote to parents, explaining that only a quarter of UNC undergraduates are now enrolled to become teachers, that there are 32 other schools in northern Colorado and the Denver metro area that offer teacher-training programs, and that only 1 percent of UNC's student teachers train at the lab school.

"An analysis of the importance of the University Laboratory School to the mission of UNC and to the preparation of teachers for the K-12 schools in Colorado clearly reveals that the university resources committed to the school primarily support the education of K-12 students, not post-secondary students, as directed by our mission." Strathe also suggested that the lab school building be converted to a service center for UNC students.

Kristen Anderson was in disbelief. "When the lab school became a charter last year, Hank Brown assured us that [the university] would support the school and that becoming a charter would give the lab school more financial stability, because they're at the whim of the state legislature for funding," she says.

"We were told that as a charter school, we'd be assured of funding through District 6. [Brown] soothed our fears and made us feel more comfortable about being a charter school when none of us really wanted that. And then a week after school gets out, we get a letter saying we'll have one year to move. If the university wants to save money, that's okay; we're rational people, we understand that. But the timing was so insulting. I'm disgusted at the way it was done. I think the administration had this in mind when they first proposed that we become a charter school."

Brown denies the charge and insists that the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with staff and families being on summer vacation: "Anytime you have bad news, there's no good time for it."

The change, says Brown, was motivated by a desire to save money and reclaim the space occupied by the lab school for use as a centralized student-services building. Right now, services such as financial aid, the registrar and advising are spread across campus in eight different locations.

"The provost has been looking at the cost for the lab school and how much benefit the university gets out of it," Brown says. "I asked the provost what it would cost to develop the same teacher training for our students through a partnership with a regular public school, and her estimate was $4,000 a year per school. It was a question of whether you pay $4,000 a year or $1 million a year. I don't think waiting to make the announcement would have been good; it was more responsible to get the notice out as quickly as possible."

Brown, who has been president of UNC for two years, adds that during his tenure, his mission has been to spend less money on administration and more in the classroom. UNC has saved $4 million in overhead costs in the last two years; the university has one less dean now, two fewer vice presidents, six fewer associate deans and another twenty fewer administrators. Saving money by discontinuing the university's subsidy of the lab school, he says, is just another part of the cost-cutting effort. "It is something that should have been done a long time ago."

Milligan says she was floored by the decision. "I wasn't consulted or anything. I don't know how calculated this [decision] has been, but it certainly leaves us feeling that the school has been dealt a very raw and unfair blow."

"We were promised repeatedly that we'd be able to live out our charter and that becoming a charter wouldn't be a move to kick us out," adds parent Marc Ringel, who chairs the school's accountability committee.

Now the lab school has only one year to find another building in Greeley and reapply for a charter with the local school district. Parents and school staff want the university to grant them at least two years to raise money to construct another building or to purchase and renovate an existing one. They spent two and a half hours on June 22 trying to persuade UNC's board of trustees to give them the extra time, Milligan says. No decision was made, but the lab school has now formed a board of governors that will try to reach a compromise before the trustees' scheduled July 12 vote.

"We have since been organizing to get the word out," Milligan says. "We had a meeting after we learned about it, and 500 parents came out. Almost all of our faculty showed up, students have rallied, and people are coming back from vacation and getting involved. There is an enormous amount of dedication to the quality of education this institution provides, and I suspect the [university] administration had no idea how strong the response would be.

"This school will survive. Where and how it will exist, I don't know, but it will."