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While adults busy themselves quibbling over the various fire-code violations that threaten to delay D.C. public school (DCPS) openings this fall, students are jumping for joy. All the talk of leaky roofs, feckless contractors, and mismanagement translates nicely into longer vacation, no homework, and—perhaps just as important—no cafeteria food that looks like vomit.

But even if DCPS somehow performs an act of God and fixes the fire-code problems on time, its cafeteria snafu appears likely to linger like the stench of a rotten bologna sandwich.

DCPS’s food fight erupted last month, when the control board stepped in, slicing and dicing a food-service contract that DCPS Superintendent Franklin Smith had signed with Massachusetts-based Daka Food Services Inc. on July 16. The board based its decision on testimony from Jill Lane, DCPS’s chief procurement officer, who claimed that Daka and its partners were ill-prepared to serve the city’s schools. Lane resigned in protest after being ordered by her boss, deputy school superintendent Sheila Handy, to rubber-stamp the contract despite her objections.

There’s got to be a better choice, said the control board, which was created last year to save the city from financial ruin and is now rushing to play maitre d’ for D.C. schoolchildren.

Control board staffers last week scheduled a meeting to entice companies to bid on supplying food to the schools for the coming year, but not one firm showed up. And control board members are now angry at Smith for refusing to help them find a new school-lunch supplier in the three weeks remaining before the new school year begins.

Lane told the control board at a July 25 hearing that she was ordered by Handy via memo to tell the board there were no problems with Daka’s contract when, in fact, she thought the contract had major flaws. Chief among them was Daka’s enlistment of two subcontractors who almost induced Lane to toss her cookies.

Illinois-based Preferred Meals Systems had a contract last year to provide pre-plated, or previously prepared, meals that some students refused to eat because they “looked like vomit,’’ according to a school official. Lane told the control board she had found 117 complaints about Preferred Meals in school files, and that if she had followed Handy’s orders she would have been falsely declaring that the company had a clean plate with DCPS.

But school officials say Preferred Meals, provider of lunches to schools around the country, was not at fault for the stale, unappetizing meals. To comply with D.C.’s procurement laws, Preferred Meals had to distribute its meals through Hood’s Institutional Foods, the D.C. minority-owned firm that held the contract. Hood’s failed to refrigerate or store the meals properly after receiving them from Preferred Meals, according to school administration officials.

The second subcontractor who smelled foul to Lane was Metropolitan Health Associates of D.C., which is headed by Earnie Green, who reportedly has longstanding ties to Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. Metropolitan Health had no track record in providing meals to schoolchildren, a liability that apparently means little to the Barry administration but gives the control board fits. The board earlier this year killed a contract for the Blue Plains waste treatment plant after flushing out Barry crony Rock Newman as a subcontractor.

Lane’s other concern about the Daka contract was that Chicago-based Service Master is a majority owner of Daka Food Services. Service Master holds the maintenance contract for D.C. schools despite numerous complaints from teachers and principals throughout the city about the firm’s performance.

So what?, ask Smith and other school officials. Daka’s relationship with Service Master would not bar the company from bidding on the contract, they contend. To the contrary, they say Service Master’s ongoing relationship with the school system may have persuaded Daka to submit its bid while other firms were running away. Few, if any, in the school system had heard of Daka prior to this contract squabble.

Despite complaints, school board officials say Service Master has performed much better than the school system’s previous maintenance firm and has cut the cost of maintaining city schools by several million dollars over the last four years. Beginning in October, Service Master will also be responsible for school repairs.

The Daka contract has some unexpected defenders, including at-large school board member Jay Silberman, who usually leads the charge to root out bad deals and cronyism from the school system. The contract was not a great deal for the schools, Silberman says, but it’s not as though DCPS left better offers on the table.

“There was really nothing, to me, that smelled that bad, and I’m a pretty good sniffer,” Silberman says. “I’m not sure it was a perfect contract, but I think it was a legal contract, and a substantial money-saving contract.”

Silberman says Lane’s heart may be in the right place, but her oversight may be a bit cross-eyed. “Jill is very professional and capable,” adds the school board member, who tried to talk Lane out of quitting. “This time I just think she got it wrong.”

The first time the superintendent’s office solicited bids for a new food-service contract for the coming year it got no takers at all. After the proposal was revised to make it more attractive to prospective bidders, Daka was the only firm to submit a bid. Marriott Corporation and ARA Food Services, humongous institutional food-service firms, showed early interest in the contract but failed to bid.

Silberman said Marriott was apparently afraid it would not get paid because of the city’s never-ending money problems. And according to Lane, firms feared they would not be playing “on a level field’’ when it came to competing for the contract.

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Lane told the control board that after Daka’s bid was received, Smith’s office faxed a copy of the proposed contract to the firm and later incorporated changes recommended by Daka. Those changes, she said, made the contract more appealing. Although Silberman claims that’s standard procedure with a “negotiated services contract,” Lane argues that other firms might have submitted bids had they known such changes were possible.

Lane also pointed out that the school system estimated the cost of the food contract at $17.7 million for next year, well below Daka’s bid of $21.7 million. Still, many question the school system’s estimate because it comes from D.C. school food-service director Betty Wiggins, who oversees in-house food preparation, which has been costing the schools nearly $30 million annually.

Last year, Wiggins managed to cut that cost down to around $26-million, but the school board decided to hire a private firm in hopes of saving another $5 million in the coming year through reduced personnel costs.

“For Betty Wiggins to turn around and say it can be done for $17 million when she was currently administering a $26 million program, you have to say, if you could do it, you would be doing it already,” responded Silberman.

Lane insisted in an interview last week that her objections, and resignation, resulted solely from her desire to deliver to “the school system, the teachers, the parents, and the students a contract that had 100-percent integrity.”

“I had no problems [in the job] until blowing the whistle at the school board,” she insists.

Lane’s colleagues tell a different story, insisting that she had earlier run-ins with her boss, deputy superintendent Handy, and is using the Daka contract to get even. They note that although Lane’s departure last month seemed abrupt, she already had another job lined up when she quit.

“She was leaving, and she was going to take a parting shot and make herself look like Joan of Arc,” Silberman now says.

This whole mess is as unappetizing as the food students have complained about. But if the food contract snafu is the beginning of the end for the embattled Smith, he probably won’t find much humor in the fact that he was done in by stale, foul-smelling tuna salad.

CANDIDATES HELD HOSTAGE

Free the At-Large Seven!

That should be the slogan for this year’s Democratic primary contest for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council. Last week, the at-large race hit full stride with candidate forums that shield the seven contenders from undecided voters, create gladiator-style arenas that encourage abuse of candidates, and attract only a few people, who are already committed to a candidate and come out to hoot and harangue the enemy.

Candidates, especially the lesser-known and underfinanced contenders like Ward 3 political activist Phil Mendelson, would be better off spending their time at carefully selected subway stops and community events where they might actually be able to sway voters to their cause. But if they skip these forums they will be accused of disrespecting entire neighborhoods and wards. And that news travels faster than anything they might say about the issues.

So the forums—which can last as long as three hours—hold the candidates hostage.

But voters, especially new arrivals, and some of the fresher candidates, actually enjoy being held hostage because the forums represent D.C. political theater at its unique best. After all, who can forget the time Dupont Circle clean-neighborhood enthusiast Phil Carney stunned then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly by handing her a bag containing a dead rat during a raucous, and well-attended, mayoral forum in 1994. No candidate has yet gotten the dead-rat treatment in this year’s at-large council race, but the forum circuit has just started.

The first lesson in the candidates forum game is to stack the house with your supporters. Itinerant former D.C. government official Joe Yeldell did just that at the Aug. 6 Ward 8 Democrats forum at Greater Southeast Community Hospital. Of course, it wasn’t hard for Yeldell, who resides in Ward 4, to round up two dozen die-hard backers, since he has so many relatives in Ward 8.

“I don’t know how many, but you start at 350 and go up,’’ observed at-large contender Paul Savage, an economic development and environmental leader from neighboring Ward 7.

Even if you’re short on blood relations, you can always have supporters in the audience heap verbal abuse on your rivals and knock them off stride. Ward 8 Yeldell supporter Mary Cuthbert effectively derailed Savage the moment he rose to speak last week. Savage is the angry man fighting a system of government that is unresponsive to the needs of its citizens.

But with Cuthbert goading from the back of the hospital auditorium, Savage came across more strident than angry. He needs a good showing in Ward 8 to bolster his chance in the primary. At this forum he mustered only three votes, but that was one more than the tally for Ward 6 Councilmember and at-large candidate Harold Brazil, even though he’s the perceived front-runner. Yeldell captured the Ward 8 Democrats’ endorsement with 24 votes.

Kin count.

Yet another endearing tactic is to plant a full-throated follower in the audience who yells out your campaign slogan after every platitude you utter. Anti-control board activist Kathryn Pearson-West resorted to the tactic early and often at the Aug. 7 Ward 4 Democrats forum. It conveys the impression you have support, when in fact your legions may number only one.

Newcomer Pearson-West [“Go West for a New Direction’’] sounds like a candidate from yesteryear. She wants to get rid of the control board, halt layoffs of government workers, and demand that Congress dump more money on the city.

If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.

Right now, the at-large race appears to be a contest between Brazil and Yeldell. Brazil is the clear front-runner in raising money, but he has been unimpressive at forums and has to resort to notes to remind him of his accomplishments as a reformer and tax-cutter on the council.

Yeldell is much more conversational as he advocates full funding for just about everything in sight, from the University for the District of Columbia to minority business investment programs. He boasts of having worked for all five appointed and elected mayors over the past 30 years, but neglects to mention that he was fired by two of them.

Computer personnel specialist and Fannie Mae antagonist John Capozzi is emerging from the rest of the pack in the early phase of the race. The energetic and abnormally cheerful Capozzi has already gained a reputation for being everywhere in the city. He is at ease, focused and effective in the forums, and actually offers new ideas, like getting Fannie Mae to provide low-cost housing loans to D.C. firemen and policemen to entice them into the city.

If Capozzi can secure the backing of Barry, who would like to stop both Brazil and Yeldell, then he might actually have a shot. None of the others appears to have any chance of winning Barry’s backing. And Capozzi has shown that he can survive the gantlet of the forums and actually seem to be enjoying himself. CP

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