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Rainier School survives legislative session

The state Legislature ended its special session April 12 and Rainier School for the developmentally disabled was saved from shut-down after four months of uncertainty. Other Residential Habilitation Centers, namely Frances Haddon Morgan Center in Bremerton, were also spared the chopping block.

“I think that is certainly good news for the people that supported Rainier School,” Superintendent Neil Crowley said. “The friends and family of residents, the community members and politicians all admirably supported the school.”

The plans to fully or partially close RHCs run by the Department of Social and Health Services were stricken during the conference committee to compromise the House and Senate budgets. The House budget would have closed one of Rainier’s residential cottages and kept Frances Haddon Morgan in operation.

The Senate budget would have closed Frances Haddon Morgan and didn’t name Rainier School at all. However, it would have required DSHS to return to the next legislative session with a plan to close another center of its choice.

Some criticized the department’s role in the budget process.

“DSHS was very disingenuous with (the House) proposal,” Rep. Chris Hurst said. “They were the ones who proposed to close a cottage on the Rainier School campus. So I went to (Ways and Means Committee Chair) Kelli Linville and she said they had testified a cottage was empty. I told her, ‘Kelli, there’s a waiting list. One cottage is used for emergency cases, but there’s a waiting list.’”

Gov. Chris Gregoire initially proposed shutting down Rainier School and Frances Haddon Morgan in the budget proposal she released in December. Her plan was the more aggressive version of one proposed by a legislative-mandated study in October.

The plan prompted an almost immediate response from family members, advocate groups, the employee union and community and government leaders in Buckley.

Sen. Pam Roach called a town meeting in Buckley the week after Gregoire’s proposal to form a strategy for saving the campus. The event was attended by her son, Rep. Dan Roach, and Hurst, and was popularly attended. Ideas such as providing respite care and increasing autism research were discussed, and some of them – like offering affordable dental care to children in the community – have since been implemented.

Despite the months-long concern for the status of Rainier School, Hurst said he had been confident the campus’s closure would not be included in the final budget.

“I went to (Speaker of the House) Frank Chopp before the session and early on I got a commitment that Rainier School would not close,” he said. “I am also a committee chair, which gives me some significant influence that more junior House members wouldn’t have.

“(The people that want to close Rainier) just don’t get it. They have a philosophy that everyone in institutions can be placed in the community and be integrated just fine. That they are losing self determination by being in an institution. Recently, one patient almost died just from moving from one cottage to another. It’s nice to think that everyone can make their own decisions, but it’s not always a nice world and some of these people are, in fact, severely disabled and need monitoring they can only get at Rainier.”

Hurst is already looking ahead to next year. There is a movement to dismantle DSHS from a monolithic bureaucracy into several smaller and more accountable agencies, something he believes the Legislature will be able to accomplish this time around, he said. He also expected the Rainier School issue to come up again.

“It will come up, but if they couldn’t get us this year, it will be harder to close Rainier next year,” he said. “This, more than any other year, was their greatest opportunity to cause the most damage.”

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