Education officials grilled on grants

Posted June 07, 2010, at 10:30 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Education Committee grilled Department of Education officials Monday about why they thought they had more grant money under a federal program than they did, and how they are fixing the problem affecting 33 school districts and nonprofits across the state.

Sen. Carol Weston, R-Waldo, said the explanation that it was an “accounting and software” error was not sufficient. She pressed acting Education Commissioner Angela Faherty to explain how the department gave out $7.5 million in 21st Century Community Learning Center grants for the current budget year while only $5 million was available.

“I just don’t see how you could give out more than the grant amount,” Weston said. “Help me understand how that could happen.”

Faherty said the accounting software used to track the grants did not raise the red flag that the state grants being awarded exceeded the amount received under the federal grant. She said that has been changed.

“The reporting mechanism on our part did not carefully account for what was left in the grant,” Faherty said.

Lawmakers were clearly frustrated that someone was not watching the math. Rep. Edward Finch, D-Fairfield, said it seemed inconceivable that somebody did not catch the math mistake earlier in the process.

“Somebody didn’t do some very basic math here,” he said.

Rep. Patricia Sutherland, D-Chapman, the committee co-chair, said she had administered federal grants in the past and understands the accountability requirements. But, she said, the failure of the department to recognize the problem couldn’t be blamed on software.

“I just can’t imagine anybody being off on something by $2.5 million,” she said. “I don’t care what the system says; somebody should have seen a red flag. Somebody obviously slept through it.”

The Maine 21st Century Community Learning Centers are both school-based and provided by nonprofits. The centers provide academic enrichment opportunities during nonschool hours for children, particularly students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools, according to the federal Department of Education. The program seeks to help students meet state and local student academic standards in core subjects, such as reading and math.

Lawmakers not only are concerned about the mistake and how it was made, they also are very critical of the department’s proposal to recoup the overpayments. They are withholding 34 percent of every grant for the new budget year that starts July 1.

“You chose — even though you went out and awarded to new people — you chose to cut across the board,” Weston said. “What is the justification for that?”

Weston said the department could have decided that new projects would be discontinued to keep existing programs operating, given uncertainty of continued federal funding.

Lauren Sterling, the Department of Education program manager, said she decided to cut everyone instead of eliminating the new grants to lessen the blow to existing programs.

“I felt it is the fairest approach,” she said.

But several lawmakers did not. Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the co-chairman of the panel, said he could not understand why new programs would be treated the same as existing programs that had been operating several years.

“You just said that it takes at least two years or more to get these programs really going. Why are we starting new programs when we think the funding is going to end?” Alfond asked.

Sterling said the law governing the grants requires the state to seek out new grants, so the Department of Education was following the law. Alfond said the department should reconsider the way it is making up for its mistakes and put the emphasis on helping established programs that have a proven track record of success instead of starting new programs.

“It is just not wise to be spending our money like that,” he said. “We should be aiming for excellence, not just trying to get by.”

Weston agreed and said it made no sense to be starting a new program at the expense of existing programs. David Stockford, director of special services at the Department of Education, said they would take another look how to proceed. He also told lawmakers that even with the Department of Education’s existing plan, there would not be fewer students served next year.

“I just can’t see how you are going to take out $2.5 million and still serve the same number of students,” Alfond said. “I just don’t see it.”

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