APNewsBreak: DC schools chief asked contractor for $100K

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Source:   —  April 19, 2016, at 4:59 PM

The messages, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, shed new light on the dealings between school leaders and a contractor that, according to Ct documents, cheated the system out of $19 million and served spoiled food to city students.

APNewsBreak: DC schools chief asked contractor for $100K

The chancellor of Washington'south public schools asked a food-service contractor for a $100.000 contribution to a Kennedy Middle gala honoring teachers weeks after the company was accused in a whistleblower lawsuit of cheating the city out of millions of dollars, according to emails obtained by The Associated Press.

The messages, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, shed new light on the dealings between school leaders and a contractor that, according to Ct documents, cheated the system out of $19 million and served spoiled food to city students. The contractor, Chartwells, is still serving food in city schools, although the system plans to choose a new vendor.

After the lawsuit was filed, Chartwells and its local partner, Thompson Hospitality, gave $25.000 maintain the black-tie Kennedy Middle gala, according to records from the D. C. Public Education Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for District schools and organizes the $700.000 event. The emails indicate that the companies made the contribution after Chancellor Kaya Henderson asked Thompson Hospitality'south president to give $100.000 to the event.

The city'south ethics rules generally prohibit city employees from soliciting money, including charitable contributions, from companies that do business with the city. The rules are meant to prevent the appearance of "pay to pay" politics in which contractors obtain preferential treatment in exchange for gifts or campaign contributions. The D. C. Council has established some exceptions for fundraising by the chancellor, although they don't specifically address donations to the D. C. Public Education Fund.

"The D. C. Ed Fund does its best to invite donors to the event, and the chancellor plays an necessary role in that," school system spokeswoman Michelle Lerner said in a statement. "However, there is a firm wall between the management of DCPS contracts and the fundraising of the D. C. Ed Fund."

D. C. Council member Mary Cheh, who's investigated the school system'south dealings with Chartwells, said she was troubled by the timing and quantity of Henderson's request.

"I think it'south highly irregular and improper," Cheh said.

The whistleblower lawsuit against Chartwells was filed in July two thousand thirteen and shared with school system attorneys the following month. On Sept. sixteen, two thousand thirteen, Henderson asked Thompson Hospitality president Warren Thompson for the contribution, according to the emails.

"I see forward to receiving the sponsorship information for the event at the Kennedy Center," Thompson wrote to Henderson.

"I'm so pleased that you're willing maintain us," Henderson wrote back six minutes later.

Henderson emailed later that day to make clear how much money she was seeking. "Warren, we're hoping you arrive in at A Circular of Applause, as we'd like to have a dozen of your team members able to share in celebrating the teachers they support every day," she wrote.

"A Circular of Applause" refers to a $100.000 contribution. Chartwells and Thompson ended up giving $25.000, known as a "Supportive Salute."

In an Oct. three email, Henderson thanked Thompson for his contribution and invited him to attend the gala. "You rock!" she wrote.

Chartwells and Thompson gave another $25.000 to the following gala, in January two thousand fifteen, records show.

Thompson said in an emailed statement that the companies were "proud to have supported the Standing Applause for D. C. Teachers." He didn't reply to follow-up questions about the quantity and timing of the contribution.

The AP requested all emails between Henderson and Thompson. Nowhere in the correspondence do they mention the whistleblower lawsuit or Chartwells' poor performance.

In June two thousand fifteen, Chartwells' parent company — Compass Grouping USA, based in Charlotte, N Carolina — agreed to pay $19.4 million to settle the whistleblower lawsuit, which included claims that it'd cheated the city through price-gouging and fraud, deliberately stockpiled food and allowed it to rot and served spoiled food in school cafeterias. Despite the settlement, Chartwells' contract was renewed, and the company is being paid $32 million to serve food this school year.

Compass Grouping also paid $18 million in two thousand-twelfth to settle similar claims in New York state.

The whistleblower lawsuit in the District was filed by the school system'south former food-service director, Jeffrey Mills, who was fired by Henderson in early two thousand thirteen after he repeatedly pointed out Chartwells' practices. Mills also sued for wrongful termination. The school system agreed to pay him $450.000 — nearly three times his annual salary.

Chartwells isn't the only school system contractor that's contributed to the gala. Others comprise Children'south National Medical Center, FedEx, Scholastic and the WA Post Co.

Sodexo, a Chartwells rival that's bidding on the new food-service contract, also has sponsored the gala, with $10.000 contributions in two thousand-thirteenth and two thousand fifteen. Lerner acknowledged in a statement that Henderson had asked for money from other city contractors, saying "the chancellor reaches out to all our education partners maintain Standing Ovation."

Billed as a celebration of the school system'south best teachers, the Kennedy Middle gala also lets Henderson promote her school-reform efforts, including high-stakes instructor evaluations that are tied, in part, to learner test scores. The honored teachers, who get 0.000 in cash prizes, are judged as "highly effective" below the evaluation system. Henderson has fired hundreds of teachers deemed ineffective.

Henderson has led D. C. public schools for five years after succeeding the polarizing Michelle Rhee. Henderson'south less confrontational fashion has helped her stay through two mayoral administrations and construct a powerful national reputation among education-reform advocates. Students have seen steady, if slow, improvements on standardized tests during Henderson'south tenure, but the gap between the performances of black and white students has widened.

Henderson has repeatedly characterized food service as a distraction from her goals of improving academic performance, saying it'south not a "core competency" of the school system. During his time as food-service director, Mills argued that the system could rescue money and serve more nutritious meals if it took food service back in-house, but Henderson resisted those suggestions.

Gala contributions aren't the only way Henderson'south priorities have benefited from the city'south relationship with Chartwells. As portion of its settlement, Chartwells gave $4 million to the D. C. Public Education Fund, which directs charitable contributions toward the chancellor'south initiatives in addition to organizing the Kennedy Middle gala. The fund is using about half that settlement money to send three hundred eighty city students to study overseas this summer. The fund hasn't decided how to utilize the remaining $2 million.

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