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Led by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, four D.C. lawmakers will file a resolution by close of business today that will delay renewal of a controversial D.C. Public Schools food services contract with Chartwells/Thompson Hospitality, City Paper has learned. The disapproval resolution requires three members to sign off, and will afford the D.C. Council 14 days to deliberate and work with DCPS officials to resolve any concerns.
Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, and At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman will join Cheh in the letter she said she will file with the secretary of the Council. (Allen sits on the education committee, but Nadeau, Silverman, and Cheh do not.) At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who chairs the Committee on Education, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. (See update below.)
On June 5, Chartwells settled a qui tam lawsuit brought by former DCPS food services director Jeffrey Mills for $19.4 million. The suit detailed myriad allegations from spoiled food to vendor fraud under the D.C. False Claims Act. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine‘s office joined in the settlement, following a decision by his predecessor Irv Nathan to intervene in Mills’ private whistleblower action. The settlement sparked calls for investigation from Cheh. The contract is the subject of this week’s City Paper cover.
D.C. Inspector General Daniel Lucas informed DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson on June 24 that he will be auditing the food services contract and evaluating food quality and service satisfaction. D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson says she is requesting documentation about the decision by DCPS to outsource its food services program and to explore other options in the future. Grosso has said his committee will investigate the claims brought to light by Mills’ lawsuit, but not until after the contract is renewed for the upcoming school year.
In the aftermath of the settlement, Henderson and Mayor Muriel Bowser insisted it was necessary to move forward with Chartwells or risk disruption to the school lunch program both for summer school and the upcoming school year. Bowser sent the contract renewal to the Council on June 19 for approval.
Chartwells has provided food services to DCPS since 2008. Following years of cost overruns and shortfalls in revenue, Henderson solicited new bids in 2012 and awarded a revised contract to Chartwells on a firm fixed-price basis, as opposed to the earlier cost-reimbursement contract that resulted in runaway losses for the District.
Cheh says the resolution is an opportunity for DCPS to get it right this time. “This gives us time to review the contract to see if we can work with DCPS to ensure we have an honest vendor to provide good, nutritious and well-presented meals to our students,” Cheh said.
Neither Henderson nor Bowser responded to requests for comment.
Update, July 2: Grosso released the following statement on Thursday:
Immediately following the announcement of the $19.4 million settlement between the District and one of the food service contractors for D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), Chartwells/Thompson Hospitality, I met with DCPS officials, the Attorney General, the Inspector General, and the D.C. Auditor to better understand the circumstances that led to the settlement with Chartwells and what action has been taken since the launch of the 2012 contract to ensure that this does not happen again.
DCPS assured me that they have implemented a much more rigorous contract and additional performance monitoring systems since 2012. Most notably, the revised contract with Chartwells was awarded on a firm fixed-price basis, as opposed to the cost-reimbursement contract that resulted in large cost overruns and the recent settlement. The Inspector General and the Auditor both indicated that their work was not complete in terms of looking into the food service program, and so I thought it would be best to wait to hold an oversight hearing on this matter until the fall when the Committee and the Council would have more complete information.
In the midst of these conversations, the renewals of the DCPS food service contracts were submitted to the Council for review. In addition to providing service for school year 2015-2016, the Chartwells contract also includes DCPS’ summer food service program, which last year served about 192,000 meals to youth across the city. DCPS and the Executive expressed that without the prompt approval of option year three, they would not be able to serve students meals this summer. Chancellor Henderson assured me and Chairman Mendelson that DCPS would not seek to exercise option year four on this contract and instead begin the process to rebid the contract for school year 2016-2017.
As many of you know, yesterday, four of my colleagues filed a notice of disapproval for the proposed contract between DC Public Schools and Chartwells/Thompson Hospitality to exercise option year three for the food service program for 97 schools. I did not join my colleagues in that effort because I did not want to put our school system in the position of choosing between not serving students or violating our anti-deficiency laws in order to continue the summer food service program, which is currently ongoing. However, I recognize that my colleagues still have some serious concerns and questions about the future of the DCPS food service program. As chairperson of the Committee on Education, I will continue working with my colleagues and our government partners so that we can resolve this matter as soon as possible. I am committed to holding a hearing in the fall on the food service program, and will discuss the rebidding of the contract at that time as well.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery