In Wellesley, School Committee tackling host of troubles

Faces new calls to oust food-service provider

By Evan Allen
Globe Correspondent / December 4, 2011
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Already challenged with the search for a new superintendent, Wellesley’s School Committee faced calls last week to oust the private company running the district’s school lunch program.

Franny Campbell, who was a cafeteria worker in Wellesley public schools for 17 years until the district privatized the food system this fall, urged the School Committee not to renew its one-year contract with Chartwells. She cited repeated health code violations.

“Since we are in the process of cleaning it up, let’s make it a clean sweep,’’ she said at the board’s meeting Tuesday night, suggesting that the district “reconsider in-house service.’’

The school district has been under fire since last spring, when it was discovered that the business office had failed to collect about $169,000 worth of school lunch debt. The debt predates the Chartwells contract, but it forced issues in the business department to center stage.

Bella Wong resigned as school superintendent on Nov. 10, effective at the end of the school year, citing “ongoing public concern over school operational protocols’’ that had undermined her capacity to advocate effectively for the district. Business manager Ruth Quinn Berdell went on voluntary paid administrative leave a little more than a week later.

In other changes, the School Committee voted last week to end the practice of rolling over employees’ unused vacation days from year to year, a policy that had benefited Berdell, among other staff members.

The board also discussed overhauling its system of background checks for prospective employees, after a custodian was accused this fall of stealing Apple equipment and other items at Wellesley Middle School.

Wellesley signed the one-year contract with Chartwells last summer. In August and September, town Health Department inspectors found food being kept at unsafe temperatures, a lack of sneeze guards, and improper log-keeping by staff.

Recently, inspectors found mice in the Wellesley Middle School cafeteria, but health officials said the rodents were not the fault of Chartwells. “This is a common problem in older buildings, and was an issue before Chartwells arrived,” said Cheryl Lefman, community health coordinator for the town.

“We have a pest-management control plan in place year round,’’ Wong said in an interview last week. “But it seems like what we have in place right now isn’t doing what we need it to do.’’

She said the school district will be switching pest-control vendors. “I think it would be unfair to say it’s because of Chartwells,’’ Wong said. “People don’t really like to hear it, but if you have food storage you’re going to have nooks and crannies. And you’re going to have mice that are going to take advantage of those nooks and crannies. They’re always there, and you have to stay on top of it to manage it.’’

However, Sarah Pozzi, a former cafeteria manager at the middle school, said that before Chartwells arrived, mice were not present. “We never had this rodent problem before, this never happened to us,’’ she said. “They’re saying it happens in every cafeteria, and it doesn’t.’’

The School Committee’s chairwoman, Suzy Littlefield, said its members had not discussed whether to renew the Chartwells contract, and she declined to comment on the company’s performance.

Wong said she is in the process of evaluating how Chartwells is doing overall. “My impression is that they’ve been putting in a lot of effort in this transition,’’ the superintendent said. “Clearly there were bumps along the way.’’

Town resident Virginia Bowditch echoed Campbell’s request for the removal of Chartwells. “There were never problems before. I was very concerned by the health violations,’’ she said. “Is it too late to turn back?’’

Tuesday’s meeting brought other criticisms of the district’s operations from people in attendance.

Wellesley resident Michael Kiernan asked for an explanation of why Berdell is being paid during her voluntary leave. “I have been in private business - a leave of absence is either A, a medical leave, or B, if it’s voluntary, I have not seen it be a voluntary paid leave of absence,’’ he said. “I would like to understand that.’’

Wong and Littlefield declined to comment on Berdell’s leave, why it was paid, or how long it was expected to last. Berdell, who has been at the center of the business office controversy, could not be reached for comment.

The business office’s failure to collect the lunch money debt triggered an audit, released this fall, that showed sloppy accounting practices in the handling of cash and checks. No misappropriation was uncovered.

The school district is still trying to collect the overdue lunch money.

The School Committee voted to end the practice of rolling over vacation days from year to year. Recently, the district was criticized for approving payments totaling about $100,000 to two employees to compensate them for unused vacation time. Berdell was owed $86,000, which she will receive over a two-year period, said Wong.

Littlefield said that the no-rollover policy was already in place for nearly all school employees. Berdell and the other employee who received vacation payouts were on the old policy because of the length of time they’d been employed by the town, she said.

“This is the policy we’ve been operating on,’’ said Littlefield. “This is just codifying current conditions.’’

The School Committee also discussed possible changes to its system of background checks for prospective employees.

In October, a custodian at Wellesley Middle School was arrested on charges that he stole more than $20,000 worth of Apple equipment and student-crafted jewelry, raising questions about the thoroughness of the district’s background checks.

The custodian, Gino Lister, 35, had been charged in 1998 with assault and battery, and in 2000 with unarmed robbery, breaking and entering in the nighttime, and larceny over $250, according to Framingham District Court documents. Both sets of charges were continued without a finding and eventually dismissed.

Committee member Diane Campbell said the board would present possible revisions to the background check process at its meeting this Tuesday.

School Committee members KC Kato and Ilissa Povich also outlined a preliminary procedure for finding a new superintendent, with the committee slated to make a final decision in March or April.

Time, said Kato, is tight.

“We recognize there’s a lot to do, but we want to have a superintendent in place by July 1,’’ she said. “Ultimately we want to do it right. If the pool isn’t there that we’re looking for, we may have to go on an interim. That is always an option.’’

Central to the search, she said, will be the opinions of Wellesley residents.

“We want it to be open, inclusive, and fair,’’ Kato said of the search and hiring process.

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