News

Boosters rallying for Rainier School

By Jessica Keller and Kevin Hanson

The Courier-Herald

Employees of Rainier School - along with friends, family and other boosters of the Buckley facility - lined a busy stretch of highway Sunday to protest the latest suggestion that Rainier's doors be locked.

Rainier School supporters chanted and waved signs along state Route 410 in Buckley, in response to the suggestion made last week that the home for developmentally disabled adults be mothballed. That suggestion came from a handful of key Democratic members of the state House of Representatives.

State lawmakers have struggled with the issue of keeping expensive state institutions operating and have looked at ways to trim costs. One plan was to close Fircrest School in Shoreline and a bill doing just that was approved recently by members of the state Senate. When the measure was shifted to the House of Representatives, however, it was tinkered with and evolved into the suggestion to close Rainier School instead.

Ida Lazelle, whose son Eddie has been a resident of Rainier School for 25 years, since he was 14, was devastated to hear the suggestion that the Buckley facility be closed.

Lazelle, who visits her son every night and considers herself a volunteer, said she couldn't be more happy with Rainier School and all it offers her son and other clients. She worries what it would mean for her son and what would happen to her son, if the school were closed.

"That's home to him, and all he knows is I come out every night. That's all he knows."

She especially fears what would happen if he were to be moved into the community or moved from Rainier School.

"I know he was so miserable in the community before, and I think this would be the same principle," Lazelle said.

State Rep. Jan Shabro, a member of the Family and Child Services Committee, said she did not hear about the proposed closure switch until March 25, the day after it was proposed. She heard in passing from one of the representatives who supports the change, Ruth Cagi.

Shabro said she was stunned and angry when she found out, and said she is more than prepared to go to battle for Rainier School.

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Among those on Sunday's picket line was Greg Devereux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees. Working from an Olympia office, he represents approximately 35,000 state employees, including 1,200 full-time employees at Rainier School.

"We think it's ridiculous," Devereux said of the suggestion to close Rainier School. "It makes no sense whatsoever." The union leader based his argument on the fact that Rainier's population is "incredibly medically fragile" and many would have trouble transitioning into a new home, along with the economic ramifications such a development would present.

"This would have a devastating impact on the entire Plateau," he said, citing more than 1,000 lost jobs. It has been stated that up to one-third of Rainier School's employees live in the Buckley vicinity.

Shabro agreed, claiming "it makes no economic sense."

Shabro said closing the Fircrest School would mean less people would be out of work and less clients displaced.

"The truly unfortunate thing, what this does is it's pitting one faction of the disabled community against another, which is tragic," Shabro said.

Buckley City Administrator Dave Schmidt was another person very surprised by the news of the potential closure. Schmidt said he did not hear about the news until Thursday, when contacted by a reporter.

Schmidt said the closure does not make sense for the state or the city. He pointed out that Rainier School, according to the state of Washington Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, which put together a study on the five state schools, said Rainier is "highest of value" to the state. According to the report, the school's "use value excluding land, outleased or segregated improvements" is $32,921,075, which is also the value for the five schools. The net use value per resident for Rainier residents is $78,759, also the highest value among the schools. Fircrest is deemed of least value of the five schools. Its use value excluding land, outleased or segregated improvements is $12,100,000, but its net use value per resident is $44,000, the lowest value of the five schools.

Schmidt, who has been asked by Shabro to put together some hard facts about the negative impacts closing Rainier School would have on Buckley, has said the city is going to do everything it can to keep Rainier School from closing because "it would create too much of an economic and financial impact not to fight it."

While Schmidt did not have the numbers available as of Monday, he said the impact would be great.

"(Buckley and Rainier School) are like joined at the hip," Schmidt said.

Schmidt said in addition to the great economic hardship it would have on Plateau residents who work at the school, Rainier School and the city share costs (or plan to share costs) on many things. For example, the two planned on partnering to upgrade the city's sewer treatment plant.

Schmidt said the school also helps pay for the city's fire and police departments because both provide services to the school. The school also buys 40 percent of the city's natural gas, which would affect the city's operational costs, if the school were to close.

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Local union members for Rainier School, however, stress different impacts the closure would have. Local Union 491 vice president Mike Holyan, who has worked at Rainier School for 25 years and was among union members from Rainier, Fircrest and Western State Hospital Sunday protesting the closure, said members are concerned not only for their jobs if the school is closed, but how any closure, at Fircrest or Rainier would affect the clients.

"It's not just about state employees losing a job, it's about the people we've been taking care of for all these years," he said.

Holyan said one of the most disturbing things about the likely closure of either Fircrest or Rainier is that he and other employees don't think legislatures have come up with a designated plan to absorb the impact of closing a school.

He said, while legislators may plan to put any displaced Rainier clients in another state facility, no facility would be prepared to take on so many at once. Holyan also said any money the state would supposedly save by closing a facility would not go to the communities to help them.

"We're not in favor of closing any of (the facilities) because (legislators) will make you make do with what you have, and that's not fair to the clients," he said.

Holyan said Sunday's protest in Buckley was just the first of many the employees plan to have to inform people of the closure.

He said so far the support the employees have received from local representatives, including Shabro, State Sen. Pam Roach and her son, State Rep. Dan Roach, has been great, along with the community support, but he hopes more people will get involved.

Many meetings will be taking place around the Plateau in the few weeks before the final decision, likely to take place in late April, is made. Schmidt said the City Council will be addressing the issue at the April 8 meeting, and will most likely allow public comment. Buckley City Council meetings take place 7 p.m. at the Buckley multipurpose center.

Kevin Hanson can be reached at khanson@courierherald.com and Jessica Keller can be reached at jkeller@courierherald.com

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