Former Employees Ask Schools To End Relationship With Chartwells
Questions about the company's hiring, food safety record and cost are fueling the push to reconsider privatizing the food services department.
A group of former food service workers, buoyed by what they say is substandard service, is calling on the school department to end its relationship with Chartwells at the end of the school year and return to an in-house cafeteria operation.
“I encourage parents to take another look at who is serving their children lunch,” said Frances Campbell, a Wellesley resident and former head cashier at the middle school cafeteria.
“Their reputation is not up to par,” she said.
Campbell, along with four other women who had worked for the food service department before it was privatized in July, attended Tuesday night’s School Committee meeting to ask for their jobs back.
The women, all of whom say Chartwells made them job offers at lower wages that did not include a viable health insurance plan, are asking the School Committee to end its relationship with Chartwells and not renew the current one year contract.
Campbell’s comments came during the “citizens speak” portion of Tuesday’s School Committee meeting during which committee members listen but don’t comment on what is said.
In addition to Campbell, parent Virginia Bowditch said she also has concerns about Chartwells.
“I was very concerned with the Board of Health violations,” she said. “I’ve had a food borne illness and it was absolutely horrendous. And it is even more serious in children.”
Bowditch also said she had concerns about how the decision to privatize was made.
The former employees cite several reasons for the town to sever its ties to Chartwells.
First, they say the original reason for privatizing the department, which was to save money for the schools, has not been demonstrated.
Originally the School Committee heard estimates from the school business department of up to $75,000 in savings by privatizing food and laying off the 28 workers who prepared the lunches and ran the lunch lines in each of the town’s schools.
That estimate was not realized, according to estimates in last year’s budget, although the school department has repeatedly been unable to provide Wellesley Patch with an exact figure on the exact cost of the Chartwells contract.
Another reason given for privatization was the desire for healthier and “greener” lunches with locally grown produce, composting and recyclable lunch trays and materials.
It is unclear whether all of those assumptions have been met by Chartwells, which has not returned phone messages left with with the main office, but the former employees say those are all things that could have been provided in-house.
The decision to privatize was made a few months after the business office made public the discovery that more than $100,000 in back lunch bills had been left unpaid.
Getting out from under the burden of collecting and accounting for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in lunch bills was another impetus for privatizing.
But the online pay plan initiated by Chartwells had a rocky start. It was not in operation during the summer for parents to sign their children up for service on day one of school. On top of that there were glitches in trying to get all the students, especially those in the younger elementary grades, on board with the program.
Compounding those problems, the Board of Health found temperature violations the first week of school, something that never happened when food services fell under the jurisdiction of the school department.
“I am concerned about how this decision was made,” Bowditch said, adding that at first it was supposed to be to save money, but then changed to better nutrition.
She then asked why the town couldn’t implement an online pay plan similar to that used by the Recreation Department for parents to pay for lunches if bill collection had become a problem.
But for the former employees, the major reason they believe Chartwells has been a mistake for the town is because of the turnover in staff and impersonal service now provided.
“Do they do CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) checks on their staff?” Campbell asked.
“If it was not a financial benefit, then why did we do this?” Bowditch asked.
“(The former employees) knew the children, it was really like a family atmosphere,” Bowditch said. “That's what this town is all about.”