Education department to request proposals from schools for $2M in grant money

Posted Sept. 07, 2012, at 7:49 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Department of Education soon will try again to award $1 million in grant money it controversially rescinded from four communities in May, but the lawmaker representing at least one of those grant recipients said the damage already has been done.

State education officials informed schools in Portland, Biddeford, Fryeburg and Auburn in May that nearly $1 million in total grant money that the districts had been awarded in April would not be distributed after all, triggering protests by legislators from both parties representing those communities.

The Department of Education said rescinding the grants was necessary because one of the unsuccessful applicants challenged the department’s official request for proposals document, saying it was unclear.

Now the department has an additional allocation of about $1 million in federal grant money for the current fiscal year to combine with the $1 million not distributed last year — $2 million in all — and hopes to issue a new request for proposals soon. Department spokesman David Connerty-Marin said the communities that were awarded grants last spring soon will be able to reapply, in addition to any other communities proposing programs that meet the grant qualifications.

The 21st Century Awards program in question distributes money for enrichment programs for low-income or underperforming schools.

But state Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who sits on the Legislature’s education committee, said the department can’t undo the damage done when the first awards were taken back.

“One thing we know about education, especially kids at this age, is that you can’t go back in time,” Alfond told the Bangor Daily News Friday. “And you now have lost an entire summer and fall of education programs for some of our youngest children, who need these services the most. So I am still completely shocked that a grant that was fairly scored and awarded was rescinded. Students and families were hurt, and you’re not going to ever get that back.

“This is a real step backward for these students and families which really needed those hours of education through one of the most crucial periods of the year,” he continued. “This is real, this is very real, and this is going to have long-term consequences.”

The Portland-based nonprofit organization LearningWorks was awarded approximately $522,000 in April for after-school and summer programs in Biddeford and Portland schools. LearningWorks executive director Ethan Strimling, who is also a former Democratic state lawmaker who serves as a political analyst for the BDN, said the programs would have provided catch-up work for between 250 and 300 students who are falling behind in their studies.

“I’m very excited [a new request for proposal will soon be issued and] that it’s going to be twice as much money available,” Strimling said Friday. “The sooner they can get it out the better, because that means we can get it into the classrooms. There’s a tremendous need out there.”

Strimling noted that the groups that were awarded grants last April have no guarantee that they’ll be awarded again in the upcoming cycle — even with more money available — and said the department likely would see more anger if the schools that lost out in May are left out of the running again this fall.

“If those communities don’t receive funding in this round, whether it’s Biddeford or Portland or out in Fryeburg, that’s where you’re going to see real teeth gnashing,” he said.

The problem in May, Connerty-Marin has said, came when one applicant, a partnership between the nonprofit Riverview Foundation and the Bath-area Regional School Unit 1, questioned whether bonus points would be given to applicants based on federal Title I status.

Title I status is determined by the number of free or reduced-price lunches a school distributes to its students, and often is used as an indicator of the income levels of families in the school’s area.

Connerty-Marin said department officials discovered after further review that, while the program was widely promoted as taking Title I status into consideration for scoring, Title I references inadvertently were left out of the legal request for proposals documentation used in the official application scoring process.

Connerty-Marin said the disconnect between what the department announced for qualifying criteria and what the program’s legal documents read caused the State Purchases Review Committee and Attorney General’s office to decide the round of awards was “not legal.”

State Sens. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, and Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, were among the lawmakers upset by the decision, and in May sent a joint letter to Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen protesting the move.

On Friday, Alfond reiterated criticism of the department’s handling of the grants.

“The credibility of the Maine Department of Education, every day, is at risk,” Alfond said. “It’s at stake. The botched 21st Century grants are now adding to a long list of mistakes that are hurting students every day of the year. They chose to listen to one complaint over a supermajority of applicants, who applied, asked questions and saw the award given and were excited over the awards given … or were not given the grants and moved on.

“Moving forward, I hope that the DOE learns from this,” he continued. “I know they will, and I really, really want them to succeed, because when the DOE succeeds, students, teachers and schools succeed. But what a tough price to pay for these students and these parents and communities who now have gone through two consecutive seasons without this programming.”

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