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‘It Came As A Complete Shock’: Funding That Helped Schools Support Homeless Students Delayed

Lewiston High School via Facebook

Some Maine school districts have yet to receive funding to help support homeless students due to what the Department Of Education says is a "scoring issue." The issue has delayed the application process for schools to receive thousands of dollars in federal grant funds.

Last year, more than 2,500 homeless children were enrolled in Maine public schools, a noticeable increase over just a few years earlier.

Meg Dumais, the academic liaison for the Lewiston School District's Store Next Door Project to assist homeless students, told Maine Public last year that those children need significant support from their school and community.

"Our kids cannot do the math homework — they are limited in getting on the internet," she says. "The smallest things are huge barriers for a lot of the kids that we work with."

The Maine Department of Education (DOE) provides some help for these students through federal grants that it disburses from the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

For roughly a decade, Lewiston has used that money to fund a position at the city's high school.

But Superintendent Bill Webster says the district received a letter from the department earlier this month with a surprising message.

"It came as a complete shock when our grant application was rejected,” Webster says.

The letter said that the department was only offering a conditional award this year to just one school district — not Lewiston. About two weeks later, the department pulled back that grant award, saying in another letter that it had decided "not to negotiate" and would instead reopen applications for the grants later.

In an email, department spokesperson Rachel Paling says that due to a "scoring issue," the original applications for funds didn't comply with state requirements. That led the state procurement office to reject this year's applications. Paling says the department is now working to issue a new request for proposals.

In the meantime, some districts are proceeding carefully. Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb says that last year, a McKinney-Vento grant enabled her district to add a social worker to specifically work with families in need and connect them with community resources. Webb says she hopes the district will still receive grant money when the DOE reopens applications.

If it doesn't, she says, "we would have to re-allocate local funds. And when you do that, something else is going."

On Monday, the Lewiston school board agreed to add extra local money to the budget to make up for the lost McKinney-Vento funds.

Webster says while he's thankful for the funding, "this is not a long term solution, I believe, for a very serious problem. And one that Lewiston is at the forefront of the state, in attempting to meet the needs of these students."

Maine's Department of Education says it expects to issue a new request for proposals for the funds over the next few weeks.