Hundreds of developmentally disabled people could be traumatized. Families would be disrupted. And the City of Buckley would suffer economic hardships.
Those were the reactions this week from supporters of Rainier School as Gov. Chris Gregoire recommended closing it in 2014. It’s part of her plan to cut state spending and make government more efficient.
Gregoire also believes many people with developmental disabilities are best served in community-based settings, rather than in large state institutions, according to her policy briefing paper.
But Bob Gee fears having to move his daughter Angela from the place she’s lived the past 32 years. He worries the change would be damaging to his 45-year-old daughter and that she wouldn’t get adequate care in a residential facility.
“I’m absolutely devastated,” said Gee, 69, of Lakewood. “It could mean death to my daughter.”
Shutting down 70-year-old Rainier School would not only affect the school’s 371 residents – all adults – and their families. It would also hurt the East Pierce city of Buckley.
The school employs about 950 people, making it the city’s largest employer. Of Rainier’s workers, 388 live in Buckley – population 4,635.
“I think it’s going to have a devastating impact on this community,” said City Administrator Dave Schmidt.
Schmidt said Rainier School is “intrinsically related” to the city.
“If you close Rainier School, the city of Buckley is basically hammered,” he said. The school accounts directly for $1.8 million – or up to 15 percent – of the city’s annual operating budget, Schmidt said.
State Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, has scheduled a meeting for 3 p.m. Wednesday at Buckley Senior Center, 811 Main St., with parents and area leaders to work on keeping the school open. (This is a change in the previously announced location.)
Gregoire proposed Wednesday to begin downsizing Rainier School in June 2011 and close it in June 2014. She also wants to close a smaller facility for the developmentally disabled, Frances Haddon Morgan Center in Bremerton.
“Residents of these facilities would be carefully transitioned to new residential settings in the community or in one of the remaining centers,” according to the governor’s briefing paper. Gregoire presented a state budget cutting $1.7 billion more in programs, many of which she hopes to restore in a later version of the budget. But some of her cuts are longer-range efficiencies, including closing Rainier School and downsizing McNeil Island Corrections Center.
Schmidt expressed surprise that Gregoire wants to close Rainier, given that a 2003 legislative study showed it was operating the most efficiently among five state facilities for people with developmental disabilities. Rainier, a complex of 64 buildings on 80 acres tucked against the Cascade foothills, is also the largest of those five facilities.
“I guess we’re in shock as to why the governor has selected this one to close,” Schmidt said.
Gee, the Lakewood father, also was shocked. Before Rainier, he said his daughter lived in a residential facility that couldn’t cope with her seizure disorder.
Angela Gee is profoundly mentally disabled with the IQ of a 2-year-old, her father said.
“Angela, like so many people like her, requires constant supervision,” Gee said.
In 2003, it looked like the Legislature might close or downsize Rainier School. But the next year, the state renovated three residential cottages and reopened another cottage to house residents transferred from Fircrest School in Shoreline.
Then, the state contributed $4.2 million to a $12.5 million project this year to increase sewer service capacity for the city and Rainier School, Schmidt said.
Gregoire’s proposal is more aggressive than the preferred recommendation from a legislative-mandated study this year to reduce the state’s number of beds for the developmentally disabled by 250. The consultant’s preferred option was to close Rainier in phases by 2017, as well as Frances Haddon Morgan Center in phases by 2013.
In a statement following Gregoire’s proposal this week, the president of a support group called Friends of Rainier said: “We believe the state needs to end the destructive ‘community’ versus RHC (residential habilitation centers) debate and focus on the real issue: how to provide the best possible care within the resources available.”
Bellevue resident Tom Dean continued: “On a personal note, as a parent of an adult son who has lived at Rainier for 39 years, I am deeply saddened that someone who doesn’t know my son wants to remove him, against his will, from his home and community.”
Rainier, which opened in 1939, once cared for 1,900 residents and ranked as the largest facility of its kind in the West in the late 1950s.
In the 1970s, six state centers served more than 4,000 residents. Nearly 1,000 residents now live in state-run facilities.
Rainier provides a range of services, including vocational training with paid on-campus jobs, medical care including occupational therapy, and recreation activities such as swimming and bowling.
Rainier School superintendent Neil Crowley said he sympathizes with parents’ concerns about having to move their children. But he said there’s plenty of evidence that developmentally disabled people can adapt to live in the community.
In Washington, more than 36,000 people with developmental disabilities live in a variety of community settings, he said.
Crowley said he supports Gregoire’s recommendation but added that it is only a first step toward a decision the Legislature will make.
“It’s premature to say that Rainier is closing in four years,” he said.
Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647
Washington’s five state institutions for the developmentally disabled are:
• Rainier School, Buckley, 371 residents
• Lakeland Village, Medical Lake, 250 residents
• Fircrest School, Shoreline, 200 residents
• Yakima Valley School, Selah, 108 residents
• Frances Haddon Morgan Center, Bremerton, 54 residentsSource: Department of Social and Health Services, Rainier School