A Portland-based advocate for blind and visually impaired Mainers has appealed the award of a $1.5 million education contract to another nonprofit, saying the state continues to shortchange children who are going without services.

The Iris Network bid for the contract and proposed to add teachers to serve about 300 blind and visually impaired students statewide. The state instead chose to keep the current contractor, Catholic Charities Maine.

The Iris Network filed a formal appeal Wednesday, citing procedural errors and the state’s own reports that it is failing to provide legally mandated education to all blind and visually impaired children.

“If we win the appeal it means going back to re-bid, and we could lose again,” said Michael Barndollar, spokesman for The Iris Network. “But if we move the system forward (and) as long as these kids get served appropriately and as needed and the waiting list goes away … then we’re fine.”

The chief executive of Catholic Charities said his group supports efforts to increase state funding, including a pending legislative proposal to add about $500,000 a year to hire more teachers and expand services.

“I don’t disagree with the need for more resources to meet the needs of kids,” said Stephen Letourneau. “But I also understand the state is facing shortfalls and trying to meet the needs it can.”

Officials in the Department of Labor’s Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which awarded the contract, could not be reached Thursday. The state is expected to hold a hearing on the appeal.

The state, through a longstanding contract with Catholic Charities, has 15 specially trained teachers who serve about 300 blind or visually impaired students in about 200 schools. Some students may need only a monthly consultation, while those who are learning to read and write Braille may need several hours of instruction per week.

The contract includes orientation and mobility instructors, who teach students to navigate hallways and classrooms and use canes or guide dogs.

Because of the visual nature of classroom education in public schools, blind children who don’t get the help cannot learn at the same pace or with the same success as their classmates. Maine, unlike other states, does not have a separate school to serve visually impaired students.

The Disability Rights Center complained in January 2010 that Maine is violating state and federal law by not providing educational services to blind children. The group cited a waiting list of students — 19 as of last summer — who are not getting services, as well as other unmet needs.

Maine’s Department of Education reviewed the services and issued a report in July that backed up the complaint. The report said the state should add four teachers for the visually impaired, among other things.

The Iris Network, which provides a variety of other services for adults and youths, decided to submit its own bid for the education contract this year to make sure the state followed through on the report and increased the level of school-based services, Barndollar said.

It had never sought the education contract before, and it works as a partner with Catholic Charities on educational and other services, he said.

The Iris Network and Catholic Charities entered bids that would cost the state $1.5 million, the limit set by the labor department and enough to maintain existing services. The Iris Network’s bid included an additional $500,000 that would be collected from school districts so it could immediately hire four additional teachers and pay salaries that would be more competitive with neighboring states that pay more, Barndollar said.

“We see that there’s a major problem that has been identified for several years,” he said.

Maine can’t legally put students on waiting lists for public education, he said, and “because of special education laws, could be in danger of losing federal funds.”

Catholic Charities’ bid did not include additional funding but did say it will add the teachers if the Legislature approves the proposed funding.

“If the bill doesn’t go through for additional school teachers, we would work with school systems to meet the needs,” Letourneau said. That would likely include a new system for billing school districts directly, he said.

Both nonprofit agencies are supporting the legislative funding, but no one is counting on it.

Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, sponsored the bill and said it was endorsed by the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. It now is awaiting action by the Appropriations Committee; its fate likely won’t be decided until the state budget is adopted later this month, he said.

“They’ll either come up with the money or they’ll kill it,” he said.

A similar bill was killed two years ago, he said. This year, the proposal comes after the problem was highlighted in a formal complaint and a state report.

“I’d like to see it fully funded,” Davis said. “We ought to do what we can do for these people.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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