LEWISTON — New legislation proposed by state Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, aims to protect and secure funding for a local nonprofit that has been working to increase the number of people in Androscoggin County with college degrees.

Rotundo said the bill is necessary because an intended $75,000 appropriation meant for the organization in 2015 was diverted by the administration of Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

The funding was meant for the nonprofit College for ME—Androscoggin, which formed in 2005 with the goal of doubling the number of people who hold college degrees in Androscoggin County by 2015.

According to U.S. Census data for 2014, 18 percent of the county’s residents hold bachelor’s degrees or higher — a figure that’s ticked up only 2 percent since 2000. Statewide, 27.9 percent of all residents held bachelor’s degrees or higher in 2014, according to the most recent census data, which is close to the national average of 28.8 percent.

Officials at the Maine Department of Education said the money would be spent on three other programs administered by local public schools and Central Maine Community College that help with college applications or tuition costs or encourage high school students to earn college credit in so-called “bridge programs,” which allow high school students to take college classes.

The $75,000 for 2015 was split into three $25,000 installments, including an appropriation for Lewiston’s Adult Education program, according to Suzan Beaudoin, director of school finance and operation at the Maine DOE.

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But Eva Giles, the director of Lewiston Adult Education, said she had received no notice that the program that works cooperatively with the College for ME program and community college and university systems to help direct students to higher education programs would be receiving a funding boost.

Giles said her program receives about $60,000 in state funding for the same purpose, and while she welcomed any possible increase, she wouldn’t like to see it detract from a program that has a much broader reach.

The money was earmarked for fiscal year 2015, which started in July, and Rotundo said she found it odd that the state had not notified the new recipients of the funding change.

Maggie Davis, the director of College for ME—Androscoggin, said her organization also did not receive notice that the state was discontinuing funding. Davis said the organization had two of its three employees recently retire and she was the only staff person. Davis said the program serves about 250 high school students each year and works with all of the high school guidance counselors in Androscoggin County. The organization also works with about 30 adults each month helping them get into college or find financing solutions for their education.  

Davis said a dramatic reduction in state funding means the organization will have to re-evaluate the scope of its programming. She said the original goal of doubling the number of Androscoggin County residents with college degrees by 2015 may have been overly ambitious but that organizers felt if they didn’t set a high goal, they would have difficulty “moving the bar at all.”

Rotundo said she didn’t disagree with additional funding for those other programs, but she said the intent of the legislation she authored and saw passed into law was for the funding to help the College for ME—Androscoggin program.

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“They are all important, great programs,” Rotundo said. “The issue is about the governor honoring and carrying out the intent of the Legislature, not about the worthiness of any of these programs.”

Rotundo, the House chairwoman of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said that’s why her new bill will spell out that the funding is meant for the specific program.  

“The amendment that came out of the Appropriations Committee was very clear that the money was to go to College for ME—Androscoggin,” Rotundo said. “It was written out; it was very clear.” 

But while Beaudoin agreed that the amendment did name the program, the language in the statute did not spell it out and the administration was able to identify funding within existing programs that satisfied the budget law, she said.

She also acknowledged that in 2013-14, College for ME—Androscoggin was awarded $200,000, but that year a special appropriation for the organization was put into the budget, while the 2015-16 budget did not include an appropriation, but just a directive for the state’s education commissioner to expend $75,000 in each of the two years on “post-secondary education attainment in Androscoggin County.”

“We have identified three other programs that encourage students with post-secondary education attainment in Androscoggin County,” Beaudoin wrote in a message to the Sun Journal.

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“To be clear, there were no additional funds appropriated in the (fiscal years 2015-16 and 2016-17) biennial budget for the post-secondary education attainment in Androscoggin County program,” Beaudoin wrote. “The Maine Department of Education awaits to receive any new directive resulting from any statutory addition/change to the current statutory language that may come from (the) Legislature and will follow that directive once the new language has been enacted.”

For now, that means the organizations that were named by the DOE as satisfying the requirements in the new budget will not get any additional funding and neither will the College for ME—Androscoggin program.

LePage, meanwhile, has identified reducing the overall costs of higher education and student debt in Maine as a priority for his administration in its remaining years. 

At recent town hall meetings around Maine — including in Lewiston and Auburn — LePage talked about his efforts to create a corporate tax credit program for employers who help pay off student debt for their workers.

He also highlighted the success of a bridge program for high school students launched in Aroostook County that’s been funded with money from the governor’s contingency account.

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