At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, chair of the Committee on Education, said this week he is trying to persuade D.C. lawmakers who have opposed renewing a $32 million food services contract with Chartwells/Thompson Hospitality to withdraw their opposition.
According to Grosso, D.C. Public Schools has just $250,000 allocated for summer school meals under the Chartwells contract, which expired June 30, and can ill-afford any interruption in food services for the fall. Currently, Chartwells is expected to provide more than 190,000 summer school meals, without a contract, at costs that exceed federal reimbursements by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Almost all school districts nationwide break even or profit under the federal program. However, the Chartwells contract has regularly cost DCPS up to $10 million per year since its inception in 2008.
Citing the Healthy Schools Act of 2010, which was enacted partly in reaction to Chartwells-related concerns, Grosso said DCPS pays a higher price than most school districts because it is a national leader in food service and nutrition standards. Once other school districts follow DCPS’ lead, Grosso said, they too will bear the costs of a higher standard.
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, and At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman filed a resolution on July 1 to disapprove the renewal of the contract. Although the resolution affords lawmakers 45 days to resolve their concerns, the D.C. Council goes into recess next week, necessitating a prompt and final decision on whether to renew the contract, Grosso said.
Controversy over the contract stems from a history of dysfunction in DCPS that peaked on June 4 with a $19.4 million settlement of a qui tam lawsuit against Chartwells brought by former DCPS food services director Jeffrey Mills. The suit detailed myriad allegations from spoiled food to vendor fraud under the D.C. False Claims Act. From 2010 through 2012, Mills repeatedly called attention to quality concerns, overcharges, and misrepresented costs. DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson fired Mills in 2013, and the city settled his retaliation lawsuit in 2014, for $450,000.
The DCPS-Chartwells saga was the subject of a recent City Paper cover story, in which Cheh called for investigation and debarment of Chartwells. 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.
The four members who filed the resolution planned to meet with Deputy Mayor for Public Education Jennifer Niles on Thursday to discuss the future of the program, which is responsible for feeding nutritious meals to some 47,000 students per year. In addition to contract renewal, they expected to discuss a plan for a competitive bid process for a multi-year arrangement beyond the 2015-2016 school year, and the potential for DCPS to eventually operate food services in-house, as it did for many years prior to the decision to privatize in 2008. Among the members, only Allen sits on the education committee.
On Wednesday, Silverman said in an email: “We are working with the Administration to answer key questions about the contract before next week’s legislative meeting. Before we approve the contract we need to know that oversight this year will be vastly improved, that the administration is committed to rebidding the contract in time for next year’s summer meals and the following school year, and that the RFP will be improved so that we are not in this position next year.” Silverman added that she is interested in exploring the potential for in-house food services to provide nutritious meals at a good price, but stressed such a move would require “buy-in from the Chancellor and Administration for it to work.”
Henderson has long maintained that food services is not a “core competence” at DCPS. Thus far, Mayor Muriel Bowser has signaled support for Henderson. Neither official responded to questions or requests for comment.
In an interview with City Paper this week, Grosso said he does not expect to participate in the meeting with Niles. He stressed the importance of continuity of food services for the summer session and the upcoming school year, and said the disapproval resolution, if not lifted, could interfere with that. “I don’t think we have enough money to get us through the summer, and without a contract we definitely don’t have enough to get us through 2015-2016,” he said. “What, do you tell Chartwells they’re not wanted anymore? Then what?”
Grosso pledged to hold Chartwells accountable in the next school year and to hold hearings in September to address lingering quality concerns and a cost-effective plan for a new contract for 2016-2017. He at once lamented persistent costs to the taxpayer and complaints from students, and defended the decision to stick it out with Chartwells another year. “I’m sorry it’s such a mess and that Chartwells is such a bad actor,” he said. “Compliance with the Healthy Schools Act is more costly.”
Yet Grosso hesitated to say that Chartwells is meeting heightened standards under the act, which include requirements for unprocessed food, mandatory free breakfast, and use of locally sourced, specific nutritional contents. “There’s every indication they are not,” he said. “Kids say they are not liking the food, and Chartwells says it’s because they are not used to healthier meals, but I don’t buy that.”
Mills, a successful New York restaurateur in another life, called Grosso’s explanation for increased costs “absurd,” and challenged him to break down a typical DCPS meal to demonstrate where such costs are a function of higher standards. USDA reimbursement for lunch or dinner is about $2.95 per meal, he said, and DCPS pays Chartwells around $4.40. “There’s no way to justify that additional cost per meal,” said Mills. A typical meal involves milk and two components such as pizza (or some other entree) and a piece of fruit, he said, estimating that DCPS will incur more than $14 million in costs under the proposed contract for the new school year, based on a price-per-meal that exceeds federal reimbursements. “What, are they serving pizza with truffles, or heirloom apples?”
Councilmembers and stakeholders agreed that if DCPS lacks the institutional will to change, then improving the quality of school food and eliminating runaway costs will be an uphill slog. Mills points to Columbus, Detroit, and Philadelphia as examples of cities that decided they had enough of wasteful vendor contracts and did something about it—-and on a short turnaround. “Columbus went from [a major vendor] to self-op over a two-week winter break in 2011-2012,” he said, noting that DCPS has its own kitchen space, something that many districts lack.
Photo of Jeff Mills by Darrow Montgomery