ELLSWORTH, Maine — The board and administrators working to establish Regional School Unit 24 got a real “kick in the chops” recently when they learned that because of the size of the new school district, they no longer will be eligible for certain federal grant programs.
Although it is difficult to guess what might have happened in a competitive grant process, Superintendent Bill Webster said Thursday the RSU stands to lose at least $135,000 in federal grant funds in the next fiscal year. That amount could climb in future years, depending on the total population in the RSU communities.
“It’s frustrating to get into this process and to be doing what the state wanted, and to realize that we are being penalized through a reduction in grant and federal funding — and to find out about it now,” Webster said.
Webster said he hoped the state Department of Education would find a way to cover those losses. To that end he has written to Commissioner Susan Gendron seeking the state’s assistance. In that letter, he outlined specific funding losses as the result of consolidation.
– RSU 24 is now ineligible for any new Twenty First Century grants that have funded Ellsworth after-school programs. The existing Ellsworth grant of $600,000 over five years expires at the end of this school year. Current grants also support after-school programming in Union 92 and Union 96 towns. This funding is in excess of $100,000 a year and will not be renewed long-term.
– RSU 24 is no longer eligible for rural small-school grants and will lose approximately $64,000 of these grants for 2009-10. Another $60,000 or so will be lost should the population exceed 20,000 residents.
– The definition of poverty for Title I funding also changes at the 20,000 population threshold. The total population for RSU 24 towns is less than 19,000, but the RSU stands to lose more than $100,000 in Title 1 funding if the population reaches that 20,000 threshold.
“Local voters might not have approved the Reorganization Plan had this information been public,” Webster wrote to the commissioner. “I plead with you to replace this lost funding with alternative sources such as the penalty funds, and I will pledge to you to do all I can to make Regional School Unit 24 a success story for Maine school district reorganization.”
The RSU is made up of the towns of Ellsworth, Franklin, Gouldsboro, Hancock, Lamoine, Mariaville, Sorrento, Steuben, Sullivan, Waltham and Winter Harbor. Webster noted that the schools in the district have used the grant funds to develop a variety of after-school programs that have benefited pupils in the district.
“These programs have created a very positive environment for students that has allowed many of them to become more interested in school,” he said.
In these times, he said, these are the types of programs that should be maintained if not expanded.
According to Webster, the RSU already has developed some savings as the new board works through the process of organizing, including about $150,000 through reductions in the central office staff. Using the buying power of the combined unit, the RSU has been able to lock in fuel oil at $1.85 a gallon, and Webster said he anticipates similar savings as the board works on insurance, banking and audits.
The loss of grant funding, however, could eat into those savings, he said.
“It’s frustrating and disappointing to see that these penalties are offsetting the benefits [of consolidation],” he said. “Nobody in this area saw that coming.”
Despite this “big bump in the road” toward consolidation, Webster said the district remains committed to moving forward to what will be a better situation that will result in savings.
“I’m sure there is frustration and disappointment with this news, but we are all excited about the prospects going forward,” he said. “But this, this was a kick in the chops.”
Webster said that the issue arose earlier this year as the RSU began to look at existing grants in member schools. A meeting with state education officials earlier this month confirmed that the district would face the unexpected consequences.
Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin, however, indicated Thursday that the situation might not be as bad as anticipated.
“There are at least two different parts to this,” Connerty-Marin said Thursday. “The Twenty First Century grants are not affected by the size of the RSU. They are based on the percentage of the school population receiving free and reduced lunch. So they remain eligible for those grants, but they have to reapply.”
Connerty-Marin said there was some question whether funds for the rural grant programs will be included in the federal budget.
“Senator Collins is working actively on that piece to make sure those funds are available so the RSUs like Ellsworth don’t lose the funds,” he said. “There’s no guarantee that she’ll be successful.”
He said it was too early to discuss whether the department would make good on the losses from federal grant funds in Ellsworth and other districts where this may be a problem. RSU 24, he said, was among the larger units to reorganize. Many of the other RSUs remained small enough after reorganization to remain eligible for those rural grant funds.
Connerty-Marin also noted that the RSU would see savings that are greater than the amount of grant funding it will lose and that there was no guarantee those grants would be funded. He also noted that those districts that did reorganize also stand to receive financial benefits as the department redistributes penalty funds assessed against those districts that did not reorganize.
Nonetheless, he said the department would work with Sen. Collins and the districts to resolve this issue.
“We’ll work with all of them to help make sure they don’t suffer as a result,” he said.