AUGUSTA — A legislative panel grilled state education officials Monday, demanding answers about how they promised too much money to 33 after-school programs and pressing them to devise new ways to award the federal money.

Maine Department of Education officials briefed the Education Committee on what led the agency to award $2.5 million more than it could afford to after-school programs that largely serve low-income students struggling in school.

Department officials in April discovered they had promised too much money from a five-year federal grant known as the 21st Century Community Learning Center program. The error forced 33 grant recipients to trim their 2010-11 budgets by one third.

“I’m just bewildered by this whole thing,” said Rep. Edward Finch, D-Fairfield. “Obviously, this has given the department a black eye, deserved or otherwise. It has given state government a black eye.”

The 33 after-school programs serve about 10,000 children at 107 sites, according to the Department of Education. Program directors have said the error will force them to close sites and reduce the number of children served.

Education officials said that, for multiple years, human error and accounting and software missteps combined to convince the after-school grant managers that account balances were flusher than they actually were.

That misconception led the 21st Century Community Learning Center program in 2009 to expand and open up grant applications to a new set of after-school applicants, said Lauren Sterling, the grant coordinator.

Ultimately, 16 after-school programs received funding in that second round of grant awards, expanding the program to 33.

“It was possible in my mind that we did have enough,” Sterling said.

That’s because Sterling relied on a Department of Education finance manager — who left the position before the overexpenditure was discovered — to supply information about account balances at the end of each year.

Until recently, Sterling said she had never seen program financial statements firsthand, and didn’t participate in the financial end of the after-school operation.

“My role in this grant up until five or six months ago has been programmatic only,” Sterling said. “I’d never seen financials.”

While Monday’s explanation was the most detailed account yet of what went wrong with the after-school grant, lawmakers still grappled with the missteps.

“I’m appalled that a program director for a $5 million project would not demand the financials,” said Rep. Patricia Sutherland, D-Chapman. “The financials are going to tell you the story of how the program is going.”

David Stockford, the special-services team leader at the Department of Education, accepted responsibility for the communication lapse and the erroneous account figures.

“Those figures led us to believe that the resources were there,” he said.

Stockford said program grant managers have recently started to participate more actively in their programs’ financial management.

In addition, the Department of Education is adopting a set of more stringent standards for grant reporting and demanding “internal control” plans from grant managers in an effort to prevent future mismanagement.

The grant blunders weren’t the only bone of contention for Education Committee members Monday.

Some lawmakers questioned why all programs — regardless of their size and success in attracting students — would sustain the same-percentage budget cut.

Matthew Stone • [email protected]