Gendron: Funds for schools will be spent wisely

Posted Feb. 26, 2009, at 9:16 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s education commissioner said Thursday she is still waiting for guidance from Washington, D.C., on how Maine’s share of $100 billion in stimulus funding for education programs should be used.

But Commissioner Susan Gendron tried to reassure lawmakers that both her staff and local superintendents are aware that the federal government and the public will be watching to make sure the funding isn’t squandered to create new programs.

“There are consequences built in,” Gendron told members of the Legislature’s budget and education committees.

The economic stimulus package passed by Congress and signed by President Obama last week contains more than $100 billion for elementary, secondary and postsecondary education. Roughly half of that money — $53.6 billion — was intended to help states offset budget cuts to educational programs.

Maine is expected to receive more than $190 million from that budget “stabilization” fund, roughly 82 percent of which must go toward K-12 or higher education. Gov. John Baldacci has pledged to use $27.8 million to reverse cuts imposed on schools during the recent supplemental budget.

Gendron and state education commissioners from around the country met Wednesday with federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Vice President Joseph Biden to discuss the funding.

Biden made it clear to the group that the $100 billion has to be used wisely.

“He looked us all in the eye and said, ‘By golly, you all better deliver,’” Gendron said.

One concern voiced both in Maine and throughout the country was that the stimulus dollars will be used to create new programs that will have to be funded by the states in two years when the one-time federal infusion of money runs out.

State lawmakers pressed Gendron on Thursday about whether the federal government will restrict how the stabilization funds will be used, or whether the state can enact its own restrictions to ensure local school districts spend it properly.

“We can encourage but we cannot require that local school boards and superintendents use those funds in a certain way,” Gendron said.

That prompted Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, to ask whether the state should set up a process wherein school districts could be penalized for not following instructions passed on by state and federal officials.

But Gendron said superintendents know they will have to report to the state and federal officials exactly how the money was used. She also said she fully expects federal officials to visit the state throughout the two years to ensure the money is being spent properly.

Gendron told lawmakers that she hopes to have more details about where the money will go and any federal guidance next week.

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