The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. school leaders under fire after awarding contracts without council approval

Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee listens to a 7th grade class, following a news conference highlighting Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s new technology investments for D.C. schools, at Kramer Middle School in Washington on March 23, 2022. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
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D.C.'s public school system is under fire after awarding multimillion-dollar contracts to food service and other vendors, repeatedly flouting a city law that requires approval from lawmakers.

The 13-member D.C. Council must approve contracts that exceed $1 million before they are awarded to vendors that provide goods and services from textbooks to security guards. But records show the city’s public school system initiated contracts with SodexoMagic and D.C. Central Kitchen — which provide meals to students — exceeding $40 million in July, months before those contracts were submitted to the council in December.

The violations were the subject of a council hearing Friday, during which council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) blasted public school officials for reporting delays and data inconsistencies. He also pointed to at least $113 million worth of contracts from 2021 and 2022 — at least eight of which never appeared before the council — reflecting a pattern of noncompliance, Mendelson said.

“DCPS food service contracts have been controversial in the past. Parents complain to the council about the quality of meals at DCPS, however these contracts were withheld from the council for almost six months,” Mendelson said. Not only were the contracts not submitted in a timely manner to the council, he said, but the district had made more than $6 million in payments under the unapproved contracts before they were submitted to the council in December.

The hearing highlighted tensions between D.C.'s government and largest education system. Mendelson’s office also criticized school district leaders for missing a key budget deadline Thursday. The district was supposed to provide budgets to schools this week, as part of a new law the council passed late last year.

Lewis D. Ferebee, chancellor of the 50,000-student school system, acknowledged there were missteps, and apologized for the error. “We did not have proper procedures to be in compliance with the law,” he told lawmakers.

The revelations have sparked an internal investigation — with help from other city agencies — into the school system’s processes around purchasing goods and services, Ferebee said. That review is in its early stages, but so far has exposed “inefficiencies” in the system’s contracting and procurement operation, he said.

Officials are also reviewing the contracts that were either submitted late or not submitted at all to the council, Ferebee added. “We are committed to investigating, identifying the root causes of the delay, and taking decisive steps to improve processes.”

The council cannot sanction the public school system, but Mendelson urged Ferebee to take disciplinary action against the individuals responsible for the errors. Ferebee noted the school system’s procurement team “experienced major transitions” during the last two school years, including the departure of its chief procurement officer. It is unclear if those departures were related to the problems with the system’s contract approval process, Ferebee said.

The district has since filled vacancies, including the procurement officer position, and is unveiling a new training for procurement staff members, school officials said.

Friday’s revelations came days before another hearing, scheduled for Monday, about the school district’s ability to comply with a new school-budget law. The council late last year passed legislation that requires schools get at least as much money as they did the year before, an effort lawmakers said will bring stability to a budget process that sees schools lose funding each year. Public school leaders, as part of the new law, were supposed to provide budgets to individual schools by Thursday.

“The legally established date for this year is Feb. 9,” Mendelson said in a statement. “The mayor and chancellor have ignored this deadline. Moreover, the chancellor has made it clear that DCPS will ignore other aspects the law.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Ferebee were both critical of the law that overhauled the school-budget process. At the time it was passed, Ferebee noted the timeline of the law, which was enacted after the school district had already started its budget process, could compromise the system’s ability to meet deadlines.