The Wellesley School Committee voted unanimously Tuesday night not to renew its one-year contract with food service provider Chartwells, ending what has been a tumultuous – and short – relationship with the private vendor.
Former food-service employees, laid off when Chartwells was brought in last year, have pushed to get their old jobs back, but there is still “no chance” that the district will return to an in-house food service program, said School Committee members.
Tuesday night’s vote represents a change in the district’s stance towards Chartwells. At a meeting in March, School Committee vice-chairwoman Diane Campbell and member Wendy Paul, who make up the Chartwells Subcommittee, recommended that the district enter into negotiations with Chartwells for another contract, citing the vendor’s willingness to work hard to overcome past problems, which included health code violations.
On Tuesday night, Campbell and Paul said that after further consideration, they decided to change course.
“It is of concern to us that we’ve seen a dwindling of community confidence in our program,” said Campbell. “That’s led us to rethink our recommendation.”
At the March meeting, seven Hardy Elementary School students addressed the School Committee, saying the lunches they were served were unappetizing, and that they and many of their classmates were skipping meals to avoid eating the food. They complained of feeling sick, though the Wellesley Health Department has said that they’ve received no reports of children becoming ill after eating.
Since that meeting, said School Committee members, negative feedback from the community about Chartwells has intensified.
In addition to receiving about 50 emails, they said, a group of parents launched a survey about lunch quality that elicited nearly 700 responses.
The majority of those responses were negative, according to Rama Ramaswamy, a parent involved with the survey who presented its findings at Tuesday’s meeting.
A representative from Chartwells was at Tuesday’s meeting for a brief period, but left before the vote was taken. Before he left, he defended Chartwells, saying that complaints about food quality were unfounded.
“We appreciate your decision and what you want to do, and we’ll abide by that,” said Chris Callahan. “We operate many, many successful districts in the area. I just take offense to some of the comments that are made that are inaccurate.”
Callahan could not immediately be reached for further comment.
Tuesday night’s vote requires the School Committee to immediately send out a request for proposals for a new food service vendor.
“To do one now is a little late in the game,” said business manager Judith Belliveau, “but it is doable.”
Chartwells’ contract expires on June 30, 2012, and a new contract will begin on July 1.
Though the district will not be returning to in-house food service, Franny Campbell, who was a food service worker for 17 years and one of the loudest voices in the chorus calling for Chartwells’ ouster, said that she felt she had accomplished what she set out to do.
“Our goal was primarily to remove Chartwells from Wellesley Public Schools,” she said. “That was our primary goal since we started this, and we succeeded.”
Though she said she would like her job at Wellesley back, she said that she was not sure of her next step. She said that the town would have been better off sticking with the in-house service in the first place.
“To note that they want to bring in another private service, I think they are going to run into the same thing,” she said. “It’s just another vicious cycle. They knew what they had in us.”
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org