AUGUSTA – State education officials who promised too much money to 33 after-school programs earlier this year are being asked by lawmakers to devise new ways to award the federal money.

Department of Education officials briefed the Legislature’s Education Committee Monday on what led the department to award $2.5 million more than it could afford to after-school programs that serve largely low-income students who are struggling in school.

Education officials discovered in April that 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 a 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 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 higher than they actually were.

That led the 21st Century Community Learning Center program to expand last year and include a new set of after-school applicants, said Lauren Sterling, the grant coordinator.

Ultimately, 16 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 (money)” Sterling said.

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

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

“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 for the Department of Education, took 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 started to participate more actively in their programs’ financial management.

In addition, the Department of Education is adopting more stringent standards for grant reporting and demanding “internal control” plans from grant managers.

Some lawmakers questioned why all programs, regardless of their size or success in attracting students, would sustain the same percentage budget cuts.

Sterling and Stockford said they made uniform cuts to after-school programs — a third of their 2010-11 budgets — to save time and be equitable.

“If we had made determinations about who was going to get what, we would have spent much more time and energy defending that than in being equal,” Stockford said.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, challenged Sterling and Stockford’s decision to open up grant applications to a new set of after-school programs in 2009. He recommended rewarding the after-school programs that have been most successful in attracting students.