High bidder wins school lunch contract, prompting state review

High bidder wins school lunch contract, prompting state review

PAWTUCKET - Officials from the Rhode Island Department of Education are reviewing the details of a new three-year school food service contract with longtime provider Sodexo after the Pawtucket School Committee rejected a lower bidder in favor of keeping the company.

A majority of school board members went against the recommendation of a review subcommittee that they sign on with the cheaper company, Chartwells, and instead re-upped with the company they say has a "proven track record" of more than 20 years of food service to the district. The vote came in front of a crowd of employees from Sodexo.

This is about much more than the financial aspect, say committee members Joanne Bonollo, Alan Tenreiro, Sandra Cano and Nicole Nordquist. It's about keeping a service provider that has proven its value again and again and gone "above and beyond" the call of duty. Chairman Michael Araujo and member Raymond Spooner voted for Chartwells.

"Sodexo is thrilled to continue its 20-year partnership with the Pawtucket School Department," said Solange Morrissette, Sodexo's general manager of school services for Pawtucket schools, in a statement. "We are committed to our work in the community, as well as the students and families of this great city."

The actual difference in money between Sodexo and Chartwells is $171,528, according to Melissa Devine, chief financial officer for the Pawtucket School Department. Chartwells officials were essentially promising that the local district's profit from the operation of its food program would be $600,243, or $171,528 higher than the Sodexo guarantee.

School board member David Coughlin, who was absent from a June 30 vote for Sodexo, has requested hundreds of pages of documents submitted by the companies as part of their proposals.

There has been no word yet from Chartwells on whether the company will take legal action against the district.

Supt. Patti DiCenso said the Department of Education is examining everything to make sure that "proper protocol" was followed in the awarding of the contract, and new school attorney Jon Anderson is also "re-examining everything." School officials do have the right to go with a higher bidder if they can show that what that company is providing is more valuable, said DiCenso.

Bonollo, who serves on the school board's wellness committee, voiced her support for Sodexo in her role on the review subcommittee, but decided her professional relationship with Sodexo personnel made it inappropriate for her to vote on the recommendation to the full committee.

Bonollo said her decision to keep Sodexo over Chartwells was based on several factors, notably that Sodexo has built up a level of trust that makes it hard to switch to an unknown commodity.

Pawtucket schools were the first in the state to participate in the Healthy Schools Challenge, Sodexo was first in line to bring in fresh fruit and vegetables from local farms, and the company has done a great job with its program for aspiring chefs, said Bonollo. Morrissette has helped bring in food that is "way ahead of" other companies, according to Bonollo, far exceeding basic requirements.

"What they serve is probably the best food some of our kids will eat all day," she said.

Sodexo has embraced Pawtucket in a way that's unheard of, said Bonollo, taking on projects like the charitable Pawtucket Backpackers with no complaints.

Bonollo said there were too many questions about Chartwells and what the company would actually bring. One example was the inclusion of Pop Tarts and Rice Krispies Treats in the proposed meal plan. Both items are excluded under the district's wellness policy, she said.

There was also concern that Chartwells officials might be inflating some of their financial estimates based on unrealistic projections.

The vote for Sodexo came after an impassioned plea from Tenreiro, who pointed out that the $171,528 difference between the companies won't come out of the school budget, as the savings with Chartwells would come by way of the school department not having to pay for certain items.


All other things being equal, it would make sense to go with a company with a "proven track record."

But all other things were NOT equal; there was a $171,528 difference.

It is unfortunate, but deals such as this are the reason that the state is perceived as having a "Closed for Business" sign at its door.

I'm not surprised to see that this administration does what they want. I thought Grebby was so concerned about cost effective measures for the city. Sounds like some serious favoritism!

Not sure why could be viewed as a bad thing....you get what you pay for, sounds like committee went with quality......about time something wasn't low end in this town. bravo!