Trustees of the LEAP Academy University Charter School heard an outpouring of praise from parents Tuesday for the difference the Camden charter has made in the lives of children enrolled there, despite questions raised this week about a $24,000 raise for the school's executive chef.
The chef is the boyfriend of the school's founder and board chairwoman, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, The Inquirer reported Monday. The raise took his base salary to $95,000, about double what many teachers at the school make as well as what food-service directors in school districts make.
Most of the supporters who spoke made no reference to the pay controversy. One, Cheryl Fleet-Hopkins, told of the difficulty of educating black males in Camden and said that because of Bonilla-Santiago's vision, her grandchildren have been able to stay on the straight path.
Her daughter Rachema White, a single mother, has benefited from parenting classes and other support from LEAP, she said.
"It's a family here," Fleet-Hopkins said later in an interview. "This is the best thing that ever happened to Camden."
As for the raise for executive chef Michele Pastorello, she initially suggested that it was deserved. "He shows them different fruits and vegetables . . . like cherry tomatoes, kumquats, star fruit, edamame," she said.
Later, as she left the meeting, she offered a reassessment. "It's a great school with an overpriced chef," she said.
Pastorello's food demonstrations and other culinary work now come with too hefty a price tag for a three-school system that has only about 1,000 students, according to an industry expert.
Pastorello was required to be retained and his salary was raised by LEAP as part of a new food-service contract for this year, in which the school replaced Aramark with Metz Culinary Management.
Schools and districts with fewer than 5,000 students usually pay food service directors between $45,000 and $50,000, according to Tom Dermott, a food service management consultant and owner of the Clarion Group.
LEAP's food-service management bid specified pay and benefits for three employees who had to be retained, including Pastorello, according to bid documents. Metz voluntarily retained 10 other employees.
Pastorello and Bonilla-Santiago, who live together, are in a "committed relationship," school spokesman Adam Dvorin said, and Bonilla-Santiago recused herself from any votes dealing with the food-service contract.
On Monday night, after Pastorello's raise was reported, LEAP's family engagement coordinator, Vanessa Jones, sent a mass e-mail to LEAP parents asking them to show support for "Dr. Santiago, the board, and our children" at Tuesday night's board meeting.
"This is a fight to preserve all that is good at LEAP," the e-mail said. "We cannot wait and we cannot sit by and let people take what is ours!"
About 40 people crowded the back area of the school's library, which serves as the board meeting room. A half-dozen parents spoke in front of Santiago and other board members.
Only one parent, who is also a preschool teaching assistant at LEAP, referred explicitly to the food-service program in her remarks.
"They even taste exotic vegetables," said Ivonne Vargas, whose two sons graduated from LEAP and are now at Rutgers-Camden - one working toward a bachelor's degree and the other a master's.
As an employee of the school, she said, she sees firsthand the chef's food demonstrations.
"They enjoy it," Vargas said. "They explore so much with the nutritional program here."
Many of the parents said LEAP had helped their families whenever they needed help, even if it was just to provide a Thanksgiving turkey.
White, a single mother with children in fourth, fifth, and seventh grades, said that because of LEAP's various family programs, she was able to enroll at Camden County College and is working toward a teaching certification.
"They supported me," she said of LEAP.
LEAP has resolved another issue. regaining its status as a tax-exempt organization last week. The IRS revoked that status after LEAP failed to file the required Form 990 for three consecutive years.