OXFORD – Maine’s school districts are expecting $27 million shortly, but superintendents across the state say they are not spending the money yet.

“It’s not just a blank check,” SAD 17 Superintendent Mark Eastman said. His colleagues in Franklin County agree.

The U.S. House and Senate passed the federal economic stimulus package Feb. 13. It includes funds for education for two fiscal years. Additionally, Gov. John Baldacci has promised to use some of the money to restore $27 million cut this fiscal year in the supplemental budget.

Education Commissioner Susan Gendron has urged caution to all superintendents over the past few weeks because the numbers are preliminary and federal guidelines on how it can be spent have not been detailed.

“It’s a difficult spot right now,” said David Connerty-Marin, director of communications for the Maine Department of Education.

Connerty-Marin said the department knows there is a significant amount of money that will go to the districts for special education and Title 1 programs, but there is no district-by-district breakdown of that money yet.

Connerty-Marin said the governor promised to use the stimulus funds to restore the $27 million taken from the supplemental budget this fiscal year, but it will have to be used in specific ways. For example, he said, a district can’t buy or upgrade vehicles but can do energy efficiency projects.

“We’re advising everyone to be cautious,” Connerty-Marin said.

Connerty-Marin said one of the keys in using the money will be how the districts made their cuts after the supplemental budget was reduced.

If, for example, a district chose to reduce their budgets by making cuts in their sports program, it is possible districts will be unable to restore those programs with the new money or even shift existing money around in their budgets to cover that loss.

“We don’t know. This is why we’re being extremely cautious in what we’re telling districts,” Connerty-Marin said. “The bottom line is they will be restored the same money as lost in supplemental budget.”

“There’s so many strings attached,” said Eastman, whose district experienced an unexpected $500,000 midyear reduction that forced cuts in positions and programs.

Eastman said he will be careful in recommendations to directors meeting Monday night, but he will not recommend reinstating many items already slated for cutting.

Other area superintendents are equally optimistic but cautious.

“I’ve made no changes at this point,” SAD 9 Superintendent Mike Cormier said. “I make no predictions.”

Cormier said no positions were affected by supplemental budget reductions in SAD 9, but some purchase orders were frozen.

“I’m not interested in building things up with the money. It’s short-term. I would use it for limited expenditures,” Cormier said.

In SAD 58 in Strong, Superintendent Quenten Clark said he intents to use the additional money “to help keep our people working.”

His district appears to be in a more favorable situation because he did not have to make midyear cuts to meet Baldacci’s curtailment.

SAD 58 made up a $68,000 midyear reduction by offsetting it with savings in oil prices.

“It wasn’t good planning; it was good luck,” Clark said. The unexpected savings came from a settlement with an oil company that went bankrupt.

Connerty-Marin said the department expects the guidelines will be handed down quickly.

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