Chartwells Dining Services, the main food services provider for D.C. Public Schools, told officials today that it is removing itself as vendor for the 2015-16 school year. In a letter to the D.C. Council, Chartwells President Rhonna Cass says it will continue to serve school meals throughout the summer and work with DCPS going forward to transfer food service responsibility to another vendor.

“Recently, it has become clear to us that we are no longer a valued partner to DCPS,” Cass writes. “As such, we think the best course is for us to exit the contract and allow DCPS to move forward in another direction.”

Chartwells’ withdrawal follows a $19.4 million settlement last month of a qui tam lawsuit brought by former DCPS food services director Jeffrey Mills under the D.C. False Claims Act. From 2010 to 2012, Mills repeatedly called attention to quality concerns, overcharges, and misrepresented costs. Chartwells admitted no wrongdoing and settled the lawsuit “amicably” in hopes of moving forward without further distractions, Cass writes.

The DCPS-Chartwells saga was the subject of a recent City Paper cover story, in which Councilmember Mary Cheh called for investigation and debarment of Chartwells. Following the story, D.C. Inspector General Daniel Lucas said he will audit the food services contract and evaluate food quality and service satisfaction. D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson is requesting documentation about the original decision by DCPS to outsource its food services program, and is reviewing the feasibility of options such as DCPS operating food services in-house, as most districts of its size do.

Those inquiries, along with an education committee hearing in the fall, are expected to go forward, lawmakers say.

The Chartwells contract, which went into effect in 2008, expired June 30. The company provided food service for the DCPS summer school program with funds left over from its most recent contract year, according to At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, chair of the Committee on Education. Grosso had spearheaded a renewal of the $32 million contract for 2015-16 and had called for a new request for proposals for the 2016-17 school year. But on July 1, Councilmembers Cheh, Brianne Nadeau, Charles Allen, and Elissa Silverman filed a resolution to disapprove the renewal as a stop-gap measure to allow time to work with DCPS officials to tighten oversight and monitoring of the contract and craft a new RFP. (The councilmembers withdrew the resolution today.)

Neither DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson nor the mayor’s office immediately responded to requests for comment. In a letter to Cheh dated July 10, Henderson said she intended to put out a new RFP for the 2016-17 school year and had developed “enhanced data” strategies for improving food services, including site visits, student surveys, and evaluation of ways to curb food waste. However, she said that pending a new RFP, there would not be enough time to negotiate any changes for the upcoming school year—an assertion that, for the time being, appears to be moot.

Cheh says the matter now moves to the mayor’s office to decide how to react to the decision by Chartwells to withdraw from food services.

“Once we withdrew the disapproval the contract is approved,” Cheh says. “We have a contract right now. And each side has, I believe 90 days, to withdraw from that contract, and within that 90 days we will hasten our efforts to find a new vendor, cobble together something together with other vendors or do it in-house… We’ll provide meals to the students with or without Chartwells—even if it has to be a sole source.”

Meantime, officials must figure out a way to provide 97 schools serving 46,000 students with as many as three meals a day this fall. “What happens now?” asked Councilmember Anita Bonds, an education committee member who until today had been silent on the matter.

“This is not acting as a good partner,” said Silverman, who, along with her colleagues, expressed satisfaction that DCPS officials and Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles had been engaged in productive discussions in recent days about how to improve food services and get a multi-year contract in place beginning in 2016. “I hope Chartwells can be cooperative instead of threatening not to work with us.”

Added Grosso, “We’re hoping they will re-consider until we can get an RFP in place. We’re back to square one.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery