PORTLAND, Maine — A nine-month-old controversy over a slate of grants awarded — and then rescinded — by the Maine Department of Education was water under the bridge Wednesday for local school officials who are expecting more money through the program than the previous time around.
“It’s taken a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls and a lot of tough conversations with the Department of Education, but that’s all behind us now,” said Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, a Portland Democrat who was critical of the department during earlier stages of the grant application process.
On Wednesday, representatives of the Portland nonprofit LearningWorks held a news conference to announce that they had been awarded $2.4 million in 21st Century program grant money by the department to launch afterschool and summer programs at elementary schools in Portland and Biddeford.
The 21st Century Awards program distributes money for enrichment programs for underperforming schools or schools with a predominance of students from low-income families.
The LearningWorks programs proposed in Biddeford and Portland were among four 21st Century grant recipients whose awards last spring were rescinded by the Department of Education after a flaw was discovered in the language of the documentation used to solicit applications from Maine nonprofits and school districts. Other programs to have grants pulled back because of the error were in Fryeburg and Auburn.
The rescinding of the grant money attracted a hail of criticism from the local schools and their representatives in the Legislature.
But on Wednesday, LearningWorks and its Biddeford and Portland partners lauded a new award of $2.4 million from the program — about $200,000 more than the amount the organization originally was awarded last year before it was pulled back.
The Auburn and Fryeburg-based School Administrative District 72 were awarded money again under the program reboot as well, as were 11 other school districts, nonprofit organizations or educational institutions.
The problem with last year’s round of awards, according to Department of Education officials, 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.
Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin told the BDN at the time that 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.
Department officials responded that the federal grant money would not be lost, but rather carried over into the following year, where it would be combined with a new allocation of funding and distributed after another application process — this time, with the legal flaw fixed.
“Today we’re announcing, after a long haul, $2.4 million in funding from the 21st Century program to provide after-school, extended learning and summer school [programs] for about 1,400 kids at two schools in Portland and two schools in Biddeford,” LearningWorks Executive Director Ethan Strimling, who also writes a political blog for the Bangor Daily News, said during Wednesday’s news conference at the organization’s Portland headquarters.
Strimling said the programs, which are for second-graders, will aim to help students who are falling behind to perform at or ahead of their grade levels. He said 92 percent of the students taking part in similar enrichment programs in two other Portland schools made up a year’s worth of academic progress by participating, while about 50 percent got back more than a year’s worth of progress.
“What we know is that when kids fall behind early, and you don’t step in to help them catch up, it multiplies,” Strimling said Wednesday.
“It’s really about having students graduate from high school, college- or career-ready without the need for remediation,” said Emmanuel Caulk, superintendent of the Portland Public Schools at Wednesday’s event. “We understand that where students get off-track is really at the elementary level.”
Biddeford Mayor and Democratic state Rep. Alan Casavant, who said he worked as a teacher for 35 years, told attendees that if students fell behind in the early grades and weren’t helped to catch up, they often were overwhelmed and struggled with academic performance and self-esteem trouble in middle and high school.
The new wave of grant allocations in the 21st Century program also comes against a backdrop of looming state education funding cuts. About $12.6 million out of a $35 million state budget curtailment package proposed by Gov. Paul LePage in response to lower-than-expected revenues will come from Department of Education subsidies.
“With dwindling funds coming from local and state governments, these opportunities really wouldn’t be here without the work [LearningWorks] has done,” said Jeremy Ray, superintendent of the Biddeford schools, on Wednesday.
“We have to get creative,” agreed Alfond. “Clearly we’re not getting out the dollars we’d like to from the state side.”