Public pressure is intensifying this week on the Wellesley School Department to oust food service provider Chartwells and to start an open dialogue with residents about the recent problems in the business office and food service departments.
Former cafeteria workers have taken to the streets to gather names for a petition to get the school department not to renew its one-year contract with Chartwells, and a group of Wellesley parents has started a Facebook page to demand public information sessions with the school committee and administration.
“It feels like there’s a level of incompetence here, and a lack of accountability that’s extremely frustrating,” said Wellesley parent Paul Baier, who started the Facebook page, called ConcernedParentsofWellesley. “I don’t feel like there’s a lot of information coming out, or accountability when things do happen.”
Franny Campbell, who was a cafeteria worker for 17 years until the school department brought in Chartwells, and who is now spearheading the petition effort along with several former co-workers, said that awareness is spreading that the problems in the school department run deep, and aren’t going to go away if townspeople stay silent.
“Parents should be more aware of what’s going on,” she said. “They’re waking up to it because we are making them aware of it.”
In the first two hours that Campbell a former co-worker, Lisa Paquette, were collecting signatures, Campbell said she got nearly 100 Wellesley residents to sign.
“The more we expose them, they have to do something,” she said of the school department and school committee. “They look like they’re hiding behind each other, they’re taking us for fools.”
School Committee Chair Suzy Littlefield said that she welcomed input from concerned citizens, and that the school committee always takes questions and criticisms from the public seriously.
Littlefield said that the school committee is trying hard to respond to residents’ inquiries, but that they are trying to keep their sights on the long-term good of the community, and can’t always answer every question right away.
“Issues are sometimes more complex than they appear,” she said. “Often, we’ve been advised by council not to speak on matters.”
The school department 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. An audit triggered by the discovery and released this fall turned up sloppy accounting practices in the business office. No misappropriation was uncovered.
Superintendent 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. An interim business manager started last week.
The school department has faced heavy scrutiny for health violations in the Chartwells cafeterias, including a rodent infestation in the middle and high schools that has been a problem all fall, according to Wong.
The food service department directed calls through the business office, the business office directed calls through the superintendent’s office, and Wong has not yet returned calls today.
Eric A. Pimental, Regional Vice President for Chartwells School Dining Services, Northeast Region, defended Charwells in a statement, saying that “many of the challenges facing the district were a result of documented pre-existing circumstances and conditions, and we have worked in concert with the school district and outside consultants to remedy them.”
Campbell said she is hoping to assemble at least 500 signatures of residents who support removing Chartwells and reinstating Campbell and her former co-workers.
“Not everybody will go to a School Committee meeting, not everybody will send an email,” she said. “But you throw 500 signatures on the table at a School Committee meeting and you say, ‘Here, these people are angry.’”
Cambpell and several other former cafeteria workers will be collecting signatures around town all week, either at the Roche Brothers on Linden Street or at the town’s Recycling and Disposal Facility on Great Plain Avenue, she said.
“We want to get as much done this week as possible,” she said.
Littlefield said that the School Committee will take into account any signatures that Campbell and other former cafeteria workers collect, but that they’ll also be looking for stories from parents with children in the system.
“We’re very interested in what the parents’ personal experience has been with their individual children,” she said.
As for whether the School Committee would consider not renewing the Chartwells contract, Littlefield said that it will be discussed over the next few months. She is keeping her mind open, she said.
“It is a one year contract, and we will be evaluating it. That’s why it was a one-year,” she said. “I think it’s been a rough few months and that’s why parents are concerned, and that’s why I want to hear more stories.”
In addition to the issues in the food service department, questions have swirled around the school department’s background check procedures after a custodian at the middle school, Gino Lister, was arrested in October for allegedly stealing more than $20,000 worth of Apple products and student-crafted jewelry.
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.
And 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.
“This was not one or two mistakes that were made, this is a real failure of governance and oversight,” said Baier. “I don’t think anything will change unless more pressure is put on Suzy and Bella.”
Littlefield said she hoped that Baier would speak at tomorrow’s School Committee meeting.
“I would prefer that comments came in a citizen speak, because the good thing about that is that everyone hears them at the same time, as opposed to going through a Facebook site,” she said.
Baier said that he is planning on coming to tomorrow’s meeting, and that he is trying to recruit more parents to show up tomorrow and to the School Committee meeting scheduled for Dec. 20.
ConcernedParentsofWellesley is right now a loose affiliation of about 20 parents, said Baier. Baier said that they will be meeting at 6:30 at Peet’s Coffee and Tea on Central Street tomorrow to talk before the 7:30 meeting at Town Hall.
“The first step is, we need more information,” he said. “A number of us would love to see some listening sessions with the school committee and the administration.”
Baier said he’s spoken with at least 30 different parents who are shocked and upset by the problems in the school department, and with outreach, he thinks he can find more.
“It’s not one or two parents,” he said. “I’m pretty comfortable that we’ll find 50, 100 more parents who are interested and are willing to put more time into this.”
Evan Allen can be reached at email@example.com.