Jeff Mills' whistleblower suit exposed problems with Chartwells' DCPS contract
Jeff Mills' whistleblower suit exposed problems with Chartwells' DCPS contract

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The saga of D.C. Public Schools’ food services program took a troubling turn last month when D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson issued a “Management Alert Letter” informing officials that the program lacks an accurate and comprehensive inventory of kitchen equipment. Patterson and her staff visited several DCPS cafeterias and witnessed meal preparation and service, and interviewed cafeteria managers and staff workers. In assessing the equipment the schools use to prepare food, Patterson writes in a Feb. 12 letter to DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, “We witnessed inefficiencies and waste including equipment that we were told had been broken for a year or longer.”

Launched in response to a $19.4 million whistleblower settlement with DCPS contractor Chartwells/Thompson Hospitality brought by former Food Services Director Jeffrey Mills, the review is part of an ongoing effort to determine whether DCPS is equipped to manage food services in-house, as most school districts do, as opposed to through contractors like Chartwells, which has a history of allegations of fraud and bad food.

Patterson intends to provide the D.C. Council with further information in the coming weeks so it can decide on whether to mandate “in-sourcing” the school food program, which could save the school district a considerable amount of money and result in more local control over what DCPS students eat. Her review looks at other school districts, such as Philadelphia, which contracted out with Aramark, a competitor of Chartwells, then brought food service back in-house, she says in an email to Washington City Paper.

“The kitchen equipment inventory was a resource we needed to be able to assess, at some level, whether DCPS would have the capacity to handle in-house food services,” Patterson says.

The answer is clearly no, the auditor found, detailing timers and temperature controls on ovens that don’t work properly; unused, broken, over-sized, and improperly used equipment; and kitchen and cafeterias built to serve more students than actually attend the schools. At Malcolm X Elementary School at Green, Patterson’s crew observed staff using a broken oven to store spices and utensils.

“We learned that DCPS does not have a current inventory of the appliances and other equipment in its school kitchens,” Patterson writes in the letter. “We made inquiries for such an inventory and have been told that it does not exist. [This] raises several important risks for your agency, including inefficient spending on food services, failure to anticipate maintenance and scheduled purchasing needs, and possible duplication of resources.”

DCPS’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services provides food services to more than 40,000 children at 111 schools through Chartwells and two other providers, Revolution Foods and D.C. Central Kitchen. The program serves breakfast, lunch, and supper, up to nine million meals per school year. Vendor employees cook, assemble, and serve the meals using kitchen facilities located at the schools and in some cases off-site, according to the report. The vendors use equipment owned by DCPS, some of which was present before vendors were selected, some of it purchased since the decision to contract out.

The review comes as the Office of the Inspector General is conducting separate reviews of its own: The first is a special evaluation of food service quality during school year 2014-15, and the second is an audit to determine whether DCPS’ food service contracts complied with all pre-award and post-award procurement laws, regulations, and procedures in effect during the contract performance periods, according to an OIG spokesperson. Meanwhile, DCPS is conducting a competitive bid process to select a new vendor for the 2016-17 school year.

In his lawsuit, Mills, who was fired in 2013 for calling attention to fraud and waste, alleged Chartwells price-gouged and defrauded the District to the tune of $10 million a year, while serving substandard fare and allowing surplus food to go to waste. Prior to resolving the suit, he won a $450,000 wrongful termination settlement, but he has yet to receive his whistleblower share of the $19.4 million settlement last year with Chartwells.

The whistleblower settlement prompted an outcry from parents and nutrition advocates, and a flurry of activity in the Council that petered out as Chartwells’ contract for the current school year was approved. A new request for proposal for the 2016-17 school year was created in the fall.

At least one councilmember, Ward 3’s Mary Cheh, author of the comprehensive Healthy Schools Act, believes the District could not only save money and improve food quality by preparing meals in-house, but could improve the learning environment by feeding healthier meals to D.C.’s school children, who suffer some of the highest obesity rates in the country.

Henderson, on the other hand, has repeatedly said her focus is on improving academic performance and that food service is not a “core competency” of DCPS.

Cheh has sharply criticized Henderson for being indifferent to the health needs of her students, but she finds Patterson’s findings just as dispiriting. “Look at the management alert. What does it signal about our ability or intent to even do this?” Cheh says, of the ultimate goal of in-house food service. “Until we have a change of mindset, whether we contract out or do it in-house, I don’t see how we’ll have a good system. It’s symptomatic of a lack of care and oversight, and that starts at the top. The whole program is treated like an orphan. They are putting blinders on to the fact that their job as educators is to serve the whole child. Reading, math, nutrition, health; all of these things are connected.”

Patterson’s review describes her difficulty in getting DCPS to provide information responsive to her request, even when it actually had the information. “The fact that DCPS apparently does not have an inventory of kitchen equipment in its schools has several negative implications,” Patterson writes. “First, managers cannot make informed decisions about how to allocate budget dollars. Without knowing what equipment is installed where, and what operating condition it is in, it is difficult to make plans or otherwise efficiently manage the provision of food services. Menus cannot be properly designed or implemented if managers do not know what equipment is available to prepare or serve the food. Staff cannot be efficiently allocated. Meaningful purchasing and scheduled maintenance budgets cannot be created.”

DCPS parent Ivy Ken is involved with a group called D.C. School Food Project. Ken is concerned about a lack of transparency bordering on secretiveness. She says she asked Rob Jaber, a former Chartwells employee who replaced Mills at DCPS, about the status of the bid contest and got nowhere. “The complete lack of transparency in this process is galling,” Ken writes in an email. “This is especially true because of the whistleblower suit that just occurred.”

Ken is particularly concerned with Patterson’s findings because Jaber keeps telling her that his first priority for years has been to get the school kitchens in “tip-top shape.” She adds, “I don’t know if it’s an issue of mismanagement or incompetence, or if they’re gaming the system somehow by buying a bunch of equipment that isn’t being used. I do know that after Jeff Mills made sure kitchens were equipped for real cooking, Jaber has gone back to [approving] lots of heat-and-serve stuff.  So I’d hate to think all that equipment is just sitting there unused so that Chartwells can save money on labor (cooking).”

In response to Patterson’s report, DCPS Chief Operating Officer Nathaniel Beers wrote to her on Feb. 26 and said the school district monitors equipment operability according to an annual maintenance schedule, but acknowledged that the last full inventory was in 2012. He said DCPS would produce a new inventory by March 18. As to surplus equipment, he said that since 2013, DCPS has sold off some of it and transferred $93,121.83 to the city’s general fund.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery