AUGUSTA, Maine — A $2.5 million accounting error made by the Maine Department of Education has left school districts and organizations across the state scrambling to figure out how they will continue providing after-school programs to academically at-risk kids.
The mistake, which was discovered by officials last month, means that federal grants administered through the Maine 21st Century Community Learning Centers will be cut by one-third during the next fiscal year, according to state Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin.
The department erroneously gave about 30 school districts and nonprofits that receive the funds roughly 50 percent more money than it should have during the 2010 fiscal year, he said, making next year’s cuts unavoidable.
“We take it very seriously. We are very much looking into how it happened,” Connerty-Marin said Tuesday. “It was an error, and it’s having some real impact on organizations.”
One of those organizations is RSU 24 in the Ellsworth area, where more than 700 students in kindergarten through grade eight are involved in after-school or summer programs. The news of the 34 percent grant reduction — more than $100,000 — has been painful, said Superintendent Bill Webster.
“This is major,” Webster said. “It is conceivable that the program at one school will be eliminated entirely. … Everyone’s been shocked at the magnitude of these cuts.”
About 10,000 students in Maine have participated in before- and after-school programs funded through the five-year grants during which they receive academic and cultural enrichment, tutoring, mentoring and help with homework, Connerty-Marin said. The state should have divided up $5 million in the 2010 fiscal year, which ends June 30, but instead accidentally gave a total of $7.5 million to the organizations this year.
“It does seem that the recipients did not call to our attention the increased funding,” Connerty-Marin said, adding that the department is reviewing its entire grant management system because of the monetary mishap. “Mistakes do happen, but you need to have systems in place so that when one does happen, you’ll catch it.”
These efforts won’t necessarily mean much to entities such as the Maine Seacoast Mission’s EdGE Program, which has been providing after-school programming for nine schools in Hancock and Washington counties, including those in RSU 24.
Director Charlie Harrington said Tuesday that the organization has been busy rewriting its budget to try to continue maintaining its enrichment programs — which include many physical activities such as biking and snowshoeing — in all nine schools.
“We’re not sure if we can sustain that,” he said. “The loss of $100,000 really affects us. It would affect any program in the state. It’s a considerable amount of money. We have to continue, but we’re not sure at what scale.”
Harrington said that although his program was fortunate to have an endowment provided by the Maine Seacoast Mission, the grant has paid for EdGE staff.
Betty Schopmeyer, education director at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, said the 21st Century grant money has allowed the museum to provide after-school programming to area youngsters.
“We’re really concerned about this problem on many, many levels,” she said Tuesday. “We’ve worked hard with a number of these kids, and it’s shown.”
Museum educators have helped children improve their reading levels and their knowledge of the area and its history, she said, and the clerical error might put a stop to that kind of progress.
“I think it’s terrible. It’s endangering such a good program,” Schopmeyer said.