D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson solicited a donation from a major food service contractor two months after a whistleblower lawsuit accused the company of swindling millions of dollars from the school system, according to emails obtained by the Associated Press.
The 2013 email exchange — which The Washington Post also obtained — brings into question whether Henderson acted appropriately in personally asking for donations from a beleaguered city vendor whose contract was set to lapse.
The emails between Henderson and the school system’s food contractor, Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality, reveal that the company’s president emailed the chancellor asking her to send sponsorship information in September 2013 for an upcoming teacher gala. The DC Public Education Fund — a nonprofit group that is separate from D.C. Public Schools — hosted the annual Standing Ovation for D.C. Teachers gala at the Kennedy Center.
The chancellor connected the company’s president, Warren Thompson, with someone who provided him with information about how to donate. She then asked Thompson to donate at the $100,000 level. The emails indicate that the two had met in person the week prior, although the school system would not say what that meeting entailed.
“Warren, we’re hoping you come in at A Round of Applause, as we’d love to have a dozen of your team members able to share in celebrating the teachers they support every day,” Henderson wrote. (A Round of Applause-level donation is $100,000.)
Thompson ultimately donated $25,000, and the email exchange ended with Henderson writing: “You Rock!”
The D.C. schools chancellor has been involved in fundraising for the annual event, and school vendors are allowed to donate money to the DC Public Education Fund. The fund’s executive director said she is regularly in contact with the chancellor regarding the event and fundraising.
“We followed all the rules here,” said Michelle Lerner, a D.C. Public Schools spokeswoman.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At-Large), who chairs the council’s education committee, said that Henderson has no sway over D.C. Public Schools contracts. That goes through the D.C. Office of Contracting and Procurement. The D.C. Council then has to approve the contracts, but Grosso said he has never talked to Henderson about any potential contracts.
“The worst part about this is the timing,” Grosso said, referring to the email exchange between Henderson and Thompson. “The donation didn’t help Chartwells to avoid any council hearings. I think the chancellor was just trying to raise money for something that is good for the teachers.”
Henderson typically contacts all of the school system’s education partners to support the Standing Ovation gala, Lerner said. City Bridge Foundation, FedEx and Cisco have all donated to the event in the past.
The school system declined to provide further emails showing Henderson contacting potential donors about the time she exchanged emails with Thompson in 2013.
“The DC Ed Fund does its best to attract donors to the event, and the Chancellor plays an important role in that,” Lerner wrote in an email. “However, there is a firm wall between the management of DCPS contracts and the fundraising of the DC Ed Fund. In particular, the Chancellor is not involved in the selection or management of DCPS vendors.”
Jessica Rauch, the DC Public Education Fund’s executive director, said that in the months leading to this year’s Standing Ovation gala in February, she and Henderson exchanged about 20 emails making introductions with potential donors.
The fact that D.C. Public Schools has an independent nonprofit group raising money for its causes is unusual for a city agency, which can make it particularly unusual when the chancellor raises money for an organization that directly benefits her missions.
“Henderson is the person who is driving the strategy of the district, so there is a nice synergy between the strategy that is being developed at D.C. Public Schools and the fundraising efforts at DC Public Education Fund,” Rauch said.
Chartwells also donated $25,000 to the star-studded gala celebrating the school system’s teachers in 2015, months before the company settled the whistleblower case.
Jeffrey Mills — executive director of the school system’s Office of Food and Nutritional Services from 2010 until he was fired in early 2013 — filed the lawsuit against the food provider in July 2013, alleging that the company overcharged the city and mismanaged the school meals programs, with food often arriving at schools late, spoiled or in short supply.
The suit was settled in June 2015, with Chartwells and Thompson Hospitality agreeing to pay the school system $19 million.
Thompson did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
D.C. Public Schools most recently signed a year-long contract with Chartwells, which is the biggest of three food providers for the school system, in 2012. The school system has had the option to renew that contract each academic year, which it has done.
This year, the school system released a request for proposal for a new food provider contract for the next academic year. Lerner would not say whether Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality applied.