When Camden's LEAP Academy University Charter School compelled its new food-service management company to retain the school's executive chef and give him a $24,000 raise, LEAP also had to pay a $151,428 penalty to its previous vendor, documents show.
Including Michele Pastorello's new $95,000 salary, LEAP has spent nearly $250,000 this school year to keep him employed as executive chef. The position typically pays about $40,000, according to industry experts.
Pastorello is the live-in boyfriend of LEAP founder and board chairwoman Gloria Bonilla-Santiago. His raise, as well as the fee paid to the previous management company, Aramark, now are under review by the school's board of trustees.
On Friday, Aramark issued a pointed response to suggestions by LEAP that it was replaced because it was not meeting the school's nutritional goals.
Bonilla-Santiago has recused herself from votes dealing with the food-service contracts. Through a spokesman, she has declined to be interviewed.
It wasn't until the 2012-13 school year began that LEAP learned it had "overlooked a contractual responsibility" to pay compensation for transferring Pastorello to the new vendor, Metz Culinary Management, LEAP spokesman Adam Dvorin said in a statement.
"As dispiriting as this financial development was," he said, "the board's finance committee found it to be a legitimate contractual obligation."
The amount was paid in four installments, records show.
LEAP contracted with Aramark as its food-service management company for the 2011-12 school year with a two-year renewal option. Under that contract, Pastorello became an Aramark employee at a $71,000 salary.
LEAP put out a new bid for a food-service management contract for this school year, specifying that the company chosen would have to retain three employees, including Pastorello. The two others received modest raises.
Metz of Luzerne County, which according to LEAP was the only bidder, voluntarily retained 10 other employees.
The company also negotiated to have a food-service manager on site, to whom Pastorello reports, and who is responsible for accounting and personnel. Pastorello's duties as executive chef include food preparation and presentation, menu choices, and food education.
Metz has declined to reveal its employees' salaries, but industry experts say a food-service manager in a small district such as LEAP would likely earn $50,000 to $60,000, and an executive chef would earn about $40,000.
If LEAP was happy with Pastorello's work as executive chef, why didn't it keep Aramark as its food-service contractor?
"LEAP contracted with Metz Culinary Management in 2012 because Metz's vision for food service at LEAP schools best aligned with the LEAP board's vision of nutrition thresholds," Dvorin said in a statement.
"New school regulations, championed by first lady Michelle Obama, are challenging school food-service professionals to serve twice as many fruits and vegetables, while limiting proteins and carbohydrates. LEAP's board believes Metz has been meeting that challenge. Aramark did not."
Aramark disputed LEAP's statement.
"Aramark fully supported the nutrition and wellness goals of LEAP Academy by providing students with high-quality, nourishing, and balanced meals that met all federal and state nutrition guidelines," Aramark spokeswoman Karen Cutler said in a statement Friday.
As with other charter schools and public school districts, most of LEAP's food budget comes from the National School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program.
For the 2011-12 school year, LEAP had to cover a $272,241 loss in its food-service fund with state money it receives for general operations. That was before the $246,428 it spent to keep Pastorello.
LEAP's 2012-13 budget of $17 million is funded through local school taxes and state and federal aid.
There are no rules against putting general fund money toward breach-of-contract penalties, state Department of Education spokeswoman Barbara Morgan said.
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