New wrinkle in CPS food fight

This article was originally published on June 26, 2013.

We may have never seen a school cafeteria food fight as big as this one.

In a last-ditch effort to hang onto the Chicago Public Schools food service contract, the largest of its kind in the country, one of the losing bidders is accusing CPS officials of conducting a “tainted and flawed” procurement process that gave preferential treatment to the winner.

Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality sent a letter Tuesday to Board of Education members asking them to withhold action on a planned $97 million-a-year contract award to Aramark and to rebid it.

The board is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the deal that schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said will save CPS $12 million a year on its current contract with Chartwells.

Chartwells officials don’t dispute the savings, but they contend they were prepared to bid even lower until they were discouraged from doing so by a CPS official.

The company is accusing that official, Leslie Fowler, CPS’ executive director of nutrition support services, of improper involvement in the contract award to Aramark, her previous employer.

After Chartwells raised its complaints earlier, CPS says it asked schools Inspector General James Sullivan to investigate.

That investigation is ongoing, but CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said Tuesday that “based on preliminary investigation there is insufficient evidence at this time to stop the contract award, and we are comfortable moving forward.”

Chartwells says the school board shouldn’t be voting on the contract until the IG’s investigation is completed and the report is made public.

I pretty much stumbled into this mess blindly with Tuesday’s column about how the new food service contract cuts out McMahon Food Corp., a politically connected company that had long held a contract to supply milk to Chicago’s schools.

CPS used to buy milk separately from meal service. The new contract rolls them into one, which school officials say accounts for much of the savings.

For what it’s worth, Chartwells was planning to use McMahon to supply milk under its bid proposal.

The $97 million annual contract has four one-year options to renew, which obviously makes it a plum worth throwing a little chocolate pudding around the room if necessary.

I have no doubt that Fowler, the former Aramark official, was deeply involved in the bid process. She was among the CPS officials who briefed me Monday on the new Aramark contract.

But officials say her involvement was limited to designing the request for proposals that set forth what CPS wanted from its next food service vendor.

They say she had no role in the actual selection process, which was conducted by an evaluation committee of CPS personnel that submitted its findings to management consultant A.T. Kearney for final analysis.

In his letter to the mayor and the school board, Chartwells general counsel C. Palmer Brown said the company advised CPS in advance of the bid process about its concerns over the objectivity of Fowler, given her previous role with Aramark.

CPS officials say it was that very experience that led them to hire Fowler, and that her position necessitated her playing a role in designing the contract specifications.

Chartwells argues that the underlying flaw was that CPS did not conduct a transparent open bid process with the contract going to the lowest bidder. Instead, CPS used a procurement process in which it took proposals, evaluated them on multiple criteria, then negotiated with the favored vendor to get the best price.

I’ve never been completely comfortable with the latter approach, but I can see that some contracts might be too complicated to just take the lowest bidder. Procurement officials often argue this approach gets them the best price as well.

The strangest accusation is that Fowler instructed Chartwells representatives not to lower its price further because it “would lead her disqualifying us as being too low.”

On this point, CPS spokeswoman Carroll referred me back to her “comfortable moving forward” statement, which I interpret to mean the accusation isn’t true.

In asking for the contract to be put out for bid again, Chartwells allowed that it would be willing to continue to feed Chicago schoolchildren for another year at the lower price they had proposed. Very generous of them. (Please note sarcasm.)

Even when I was a kid, I never liked getting caught in the middle of a food fight.

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