PORTLAND, Maine — Two state lawmakers are taking the Maine Department of Education to task for rescinding nearly $1 million in grant money that had been awarded to four districts, a decision one local school official said tarnishes the department’s credibility.

State Sens. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, and Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, urged Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen in a joint letter Wednesday to rethink the decision to withdraw the awards.

But state education officials say their hands are tied in the matter and that a flaw in the grant program documents, found after the awards were made, rendered the round of awards “not legal.”

School officials in Portland, Biddeford, Fryeburg and Auburnwere told by the state in late April they had been chosen to receive money from the 21st Century Awards program. The program distributes federal grant funding to enrichment programs for low-income and underperforming schools.

“Once our districts were awarded the funds, both our programs announced the awards to our communities and began the process of preparing for the summer and fall programming,” the letter from Snowe-Mello and Sullivan read. “Through no fault of their own, nor the students they serve, a month after the award letters were sent, our sites received an email at 4:59 p.m. on Friday, May 18, informing us that the awards were being vacated, despite the fact that ‘the scoring was done accurately.’

“Disappointingly, the two of us had to hear the news second hand,” they continued, “no one from your office contacted us to explain what was happening, despite the immediate affect the department’s decision had on hundreds of our constituents.”

The senators added that grant awards cannot be rescinded unless there was a “violation of state law” and that the public was not given an opportunity to discuss the withdrawal of funds before the decision was made to pull the money back.

But Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said one applicant that did not receive an award, a partnership between the Riverview Foundation and the Bath-area Regional School Unit 1, argued it was unclear whether bonus points would be awarded to districts based on Title I status.

“One applicant — out of 16 who were not awarded funds — arguing that something was unclear when they had multiple opportunities to ask for clarity, simply does not appear to be sufficient cause for making such a drastic decision,” the senators wrote. “Regardless, the lack of clarity cited would not have prevented eligible applicants from applying.”

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

Connerty-Marin said 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, which was 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.”

“We had no choice but to withdraw the awards, because the RFP itself was flawed,” Connerty-Marin said. “The language of the RFP did not reflect either the intent or what was said publicly about how it was going to be scored.”

The department spokesman also noted that no school programming at any of the applying districts will be taken away because of the gaff, but proposed new programs will not be able to begin as intended.

He added that the state does not lose the nearly $1 million in federal grant money and the department plans to combine that funding with another $1 million due to be received July 1 before issuing another request for proposals in the program, this time with about $2 million available to distribute.

Connerty-Marin said the department apologizes to the four districts who now will have to reapply for the money without any guarantee they will receive awards again.

“Obviously, they had strong applications before and they have strong chances” to win, Connerty-Marin said.

“We certainly have nothing to gain by having rescinded it,” Connerty-Marin said. “We had no choice. We can’t base awards on a flawed legal document.”

Jeff Porter, assistant superintendent of the Biddeford School Department, wrote to Sullivan in an email Thursday the ordeal has “tarnished … the credibility” of the Department of Education.

“How do we know that future applications will be taken seriously? How do we know if future awards could be arbitrarily rescinded without warning? The state must act with fidelity and integrity in its workings with school districts,” Porter wrote. “This event has jeopardized the ability of the Department of Education to work effectively with districts. This decision undermines the element of trust districts must have in order to carry out their responsibilities and obligations to students.”

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