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Rainier School grassroots defense sets strategy

Earlier this month, Gov. Christine Gregoire released her proposal for the 2010 Washington state budget, including a plan to phase out the Rainier School for the developmentally disabled beginning in 2011 and ending in elimination by 2014. The news has prompted an immediate response from local politicians, state workers and Buckley community leaders and members in support of the school’s continued operation.

State Sen. Pam Roach hosted an open meeting at the Buckley Senior Center Dec. 16 to brainstorm goals to keep the facility open. She was joined by Reps. Dan Roach and Chris Hurst, Buckley Mayor Pat Johnson, Enumclaw Mayor-elect Liz Reynolds, Tom Dean and Bob Gee of the Friends of Rainier, and representatives from the Washington Federation of State Employees and the Enumclaw and Buckley Chambers of Commerce.

The group represented an Ad Hoc committee that Rep. Roach assigned herself to as temporary chair. Together, and with the input of the audience, they outlined some general points supporting the case for keeping Rainier School open.

First, the committee argued services the Rainier School provides are still necessary. Mike Holyan, an employee of the facility sitting in the front row, related his personal experience bringing back residents who had been released and subsequently encountered trouble due to behavioral problems.

Second, inadequacies in the facility can usually be traced back to inadequate funding, representing an incomplete investment, Holyan said.

“How are we going to stop the bleeding now?” he said. “It’s so bad right now because they’ve closed the (therapeutic exercise) pool, 200 of our residents are out of work because the job training program has been cut in half. The issue is money, money, money and we’ve got to stop the bleeding somewhere. It’s going to cost a fortune to put the facility back into place once it’s been closed down and the state realizes it was a necessity after all.”

Third, if the state did determine it had made poor judgement in shutting down Rainier School, it would prove more expensive to reinstitute the facility later, Sen. Roach said.

“Critics are concerned about the cost of state employees,” she said. “But it costs three times as much to create a new job than it does to maintain an existing position.”

To address these points, the committee created six goals to keep Rainier School open and give it more visible relevance to the outside community.

The committee wished to institute:

• respite care and adult day care to provide a break to those caring for a developmentally disabled family member. Roach’s assistant Cheryl Marshall has a disabled adult son, whom she elected to care for herself rather than place him in Rainier School at a young age. Her time and health have suffered for it, she said and the option to take him to daycare once in a while would provide a much needed break.

• a continued focus on continuing education for the developmentally disabled.

• public outreach programs, such as shared use of the therapy pool with the Buckley Senior Center. Sen. Roach shared an idea to use a portion of White River property in the process of being bought by the city of Buckley as a disability-friendly campground.

• more utilization of services. Buckley Council Member Melissa Patson worked for Rainier School for nearly 35 years. The center used to be a hub for medical, dental and nursing internships and provided consulting services to out-of-state facilities, she said.

• an expanded role in autism research. The facility was involved in research into Down syndrome in the 1950s and ‘60s. With a recent increase in reported cases of autism, the facility could develop credibility outside of its care services, Rep. Roach said.

• improvement of the grounds and facilities. A run-down looking facility influenced Marshall’s decision not to place her son in Rainier School, and Sen. Roach admitted that the grounds weren’t much to look at. But a state investment in improvements could go a long way for the facility’s operations, and prevent the state from taking the costly measures to close the facility down.

A consultant’s report recommending Rainier School’s closure, submitted to the governor in October, estimated it would cost more than $1.6 million a year to close the facility, Rep. Hurst said.

Gregoire’s budget proposal constitutes a recommendation to the state legislature and does not hold any direct power to change the budget. The real battle over Rainier School will take place in 2010 legislative session, and to this end Reps. Roach, Hurst and Sen. Roach have the power to rapidly craft a bill to keep the facility open, Sen. Roach said.

Sen. Roach recommended that every audience member with an interest in keeping the facility open should write letters to the legislature and make their voice heard.

Tom Dean, a member of the Friends of Rainier, passed around a picture of a plaque on the Rainier grounds, quoting a Biblical passage: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

“The residents of the Rainier School are the least of our brethren,” Dean said. “And it is our responsibility to watch out for and protect them against closure.”

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