AUGUSTA, Maine — State education officials have been scrambling to find ways to alleviate the damage done by a $2.5 million accounting error that has left after- and before-school programs short on funding for next year.
“We think we’ve identified funds,” David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said late last week. “It’s not going to solve everything. It won’t be the full amount. But it will be a sizable number.”
Angela Faherty, acting commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, sent a letter Monday to the roughly 30 school districts and nonprofit groups that receive 21st Century Community Learning Center grants to let them know that the state is “working vigorously” to identify and secure possible funding sources.
“We are encouraged about the possibility of restoring at least some of the reductions,” she wrote.
The error, which was discovered by officials in April, was caused by the state awarding much more money than it should have to the programs.
The grant recipients had no way of knowing that the state awarded them too much money, Connerty-Marin clarified.
“Individual programs did not receive more than they were supposed to receive,” he said. “We awarded more than we were supposed to award.”
But the programs now will experience a 34 percent reduction in subsidies for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2010.
For people who have been working directly with the children, the thought of losing so much of their funding has been terrible.
Kris Braga, the 21st Century Community Learning Center director for RSU 20, said that 639 students from Frankfort, Searsport, Stockton Springs and other Waldo County communities have been able to receive “focused” math and reading tutoring and homework help through the program. They also have been able to explore enrichment activities such as bicycling, archery, dance, art residencies, gardening and community service, she said.
For many of the children, who often do not come from privileged backgrounds, it may be their first chance to try some of these activities.
“There are all kinds of things that we’re able to provide with this money,” she said.
Penobscot Marine Museum education director Betty Schopmeyer said that when fourth- and fifth-graders recently learned about Maine fisheries through the after-school program that’s offered at the museum, they wowed adults with their new knowledge on a field trip to Acadia National Park.
“A regular schoolteacher at Stockton Springs Elementary School sought out the after school site leader to tell him how clearly the after school students stood out on this trip,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Bangor Daily News. “They answered marine life-related questions with confidence and were proud of being able to demonstrate their knowledge as the stars of the occasion … it would be a shame if things have to be reduced or eliminated because of an error in office accounting.”
It’s possible that extra money for the programs, which have served about 10,000 students in Maine, might become available through the federal stimulus package, Connerty-Marin said.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has been reviewing the after- and before-school program participants to see how many are eligible to receive funds through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. TANF functions as one of the state’s welfare programs.
“We do not take lightly the error that led us to the current situation,” Faherty wrote in the letter to the grant recipients. “We are working to develop improved processes and protocols to ensure that we prevent this kind of error in the future.”