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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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MAP to open despite shortfall

After a week of daily rallies by its students, a Spokane high school for teenagers with mental illness will open next week despite deep cuts proposed for its budget.

Mental health officials cautioned parents and students Wednesday night that therapists, who since 1989 have worked hand-in-hand with teachers at the MAP school, will likely have their hours significantly reduced if the proposed cuts are enacted on Oct. 1.

“The question is, when we move into October, what will the therapy component look like?” said Lou Sowers, director of Child and Family Services for Spokane Mental Health, which operates the school in conjunction with Spokane Public Schools. “I wish I had an answer.”

The announcement last week that the school was scheduled to close prompted rallies by its students, as well as concern from officials in Spokane and Olympia.

Officials said the future of MAP – an acronym for Multi-Agency Adolescent Program – remains unclear. Under a budget proposed by the county’s public mental health system, the school will lose about $28,000 a month in funding beginning Oct. 1.

“We want to provide as much consistency for the kids and family as we can,” said Mike Ainsworth, executive director of Student Support Services for Spokane Public Schools. “Obviously, this has been a very stressful time for them.”

The school, which enrolls about 25 students, has been hailed as a success for its merging of public education and individual mental health services. A second alternative school, New Bridge, will not re-open but will be absorbed into an existing program, according to school officials. New Bridge specialized in students who had been involved in the criminal justice system.

The cuts to the school program were part of a far-reaching proposal from the county’s public mental-health administration that would decrease funding to community providers by more than $450,000 a month. County officials have projected a budget shortfall of $7.5 million for mental health programs this year, despite the state Legislature’s decision to provide $38 million to supplement a decrease in federal funding.

David Panken, executive director of Spokane Mental Health, said his agency’s lease on the current MAP building expires this fall and officials may move the school to another location. Therapists, who once worked at the school daily, may now visit weekly or in response to emergencies, Panken said.

“We’re working really closely with the school district,” Panken said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

Superintendent Brian Benzel said his district was surprised by the extent of the proposed cuts and the timing of the announcement in late August.

“We have the educational dollars intact,” Benzel said. “We have put together a plan to keep us going for the short term.”

But the mental health funding for the school remains a controversy.

The Department of Social and Health Services, which has challenged the county’s assertion of a shortfall, sent an audit team to Spokane this week to review the county’s projections.

DSHS Secretary Robin Arnold-Williams said she is concerned about the funding situation in Spokane, but said her office has calculated the county will actually receive $525,000 more than initially projected for 2005.

Arnold-Williams said Spokane, like other regions in the state, is struggling to reconcile lower Medicaid reimbursement rates and new spending restrictions with an increased need for services.

“It is clearly a time of change in mental health,” Arnold-Williams said. “If we don’t provide mental health care, Spokane will pay for it in its jails and in its emergency rooms. It will be paid for, one way or another.”

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