State Education Commissioner Jim Rier, left, and Mitchell Look, right, principal of Rose Gaffney Elementary School, talk with school personnel in 2014.

The Maine Department of Education is alerting districts that the state could lose more than $1 million in federal grants for rural and low-income schools. The change could reduce funding that has helped pay for technology, art and physical education teachers, and mental health councilors across many of the state’s small rural districts.

Each year, dozens of school districts in Maine traditionally receive a total of about $1.5 million from the Rural Education Achievement Program, part of the federal Title V program. It provides two kinds of grants to rural schools that are either very small or serve a large proportion of low-income students.

According to the state, that money is used to pay for services such as technology, mental health councilors, and summer and after-school programs.

But late last month, the Maine Department of Education sent out a notice saying that next year, Maine districts could lose up to 75 percent of those funds — an anticipated loss of $1.2 million. The reason, according to the state, is a change in how schools are ruled eligible.

For 16 years, the state said it has been given flexibility to measure poverty levels in school districts by the percentage of students who get free lunch. But the state received notice that it will now have to rely on U.S. Census data instead, which it said will make more than 100 districts ineligible for one of the grants, from the Rural and Low-Income School Program.

“The U.S. Census numbers are much lower and Maine DOE has questions into the U.S. Department of Education to understand how the numbers are generated and how they can be so different than what the alternative data shows,” Maine DOE spokesperson Kelli Deveaux said in an email. “This has resulted in only 45 districts being eligible for the RLIS grant for the upcoming year. Last year there were 149 districts eligible, meaning 104 districts are now no longer eligible for the state Title V grant.”

The department said that some districts may still qualify for other grants from the REAP program. But for many schools, those grants are less than what they’ve received in the past.

“My thought was, it was disappointment. I said, ‘Geez, how can they do this now?’” said Mitchell Look, curriculum coordinator for AOS 96 in the Machias area.

Look said several area districts could be affected, including Machiasport Public Schools, which could lose more than $10,000.

“That helped pay for their phys. ed, a day a week music or art, I can’t remember which one. It paid for those. Now, if you’re going to keep those programs, which you need to do, you’re going to have to get it out of the local budget, which is already strapped as it is. So that’s certainly going to hurt,” he said.

In an emailed statement, a U.S. Department of Education official said the agency “undertook an extensive review of its processes for awarding the Rural Education Achievement Program funds.” As a result, it discovered that in the past, some districts were “erroneously determined to be eligible” for some of the grants based on “alternative poverty measures” that didn’t meet requirements of federal law.

The official said that while states like Maine are approved to use alternative measures such as free lunch percentage for some federal programs, they cannot be used to determine eligibility for the Rural Education Achievement Program grants.

Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said his organization has already alerted some members of Maine’s federal delegation to the issue. Bailey said he’s also concerned that the eligibility changes could possibly be part of a larger shift in priorities by the federal government.

“Certainly, I think, it may be identifying certain priorities of the administration, versus what has been in play for the past close to two decades,” he said.

The Maine Department of Education said that it’s reaching out to every district affected by the changes.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.