The board of trustees of Camden's LEAP Academy University Charter School is conducting a review of the process by which its executive chef got a $24,000 raise last year.
Chef Michele Pastorello is the boyfriend of LEAP's founder and board chairwoman, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, and, as The Inquirer reported this week, his base salary was bumped up to $95,000 as part of a new food-service contract. That is more than double what chefs at schools in the area typically earn.
A school spokesman said Bonilla-Santiago had recused herself from any votes pertaining to the food-service contract.
"The board is conducting its own independent review of this process. Until that review is completed, we will reserve comment on this matter," board treasurer Peter Burke said in a statement Friday.
Burke, a nonvoting member of the board, is executive vice president of development for Brandywine Senior Living in Moorestown.
The bid LEAP put out seeking a food-service contractor for this school year specified that whatever company was chosen would have to retain three employees, including Pastorello. Their pay and benefits also were specified.
Metz Culinary Management of Luzerne County, Pa., which, according to LEAP, was the only bidder, voluntarily retained 10 other employees.
Though not required to by the bid specifications, Metz negotiated to have a food-service director on the LEAP account, company spokesman David Saba said.
The director, to whom Pastorello would report, is responsible for accounting and personnel, Saba said. Pastorello's duties as executive chef include food preparation and presentation, menu choices, and food education, he said.
Metz would not disclose the director's salary. However, food-service directors for schools of LEAP's size - 1,000 students - ordinarily are paid about $60,000, food-service management consultant Tom Dermott said. An executive chef typically would make about $40,000, Dermott said.
"Executive chef is an abused title," Dermott said, calling the person essentially a cook.
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.
"This is a serious issue, since it takes away funds that could be used in the classroom," said David Sciarra, executive director of the New Jersey Education Law Center, which advocates for students in poor school districts. "Given all the fiscal problems with this school, [Education Commissioner Chris] Cerf should appoint a fiscal monitor to take control of the school's finances."
State Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Lynne Richmond said schools generally were expected to cover all their food-service costs from the national programs and any sales to students.
It is not uncommon for charter schools to cover food-program losses with their general funds, said Carlos Perez, president and CEO of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. However, he could not say how LEAP's use of its general fund to cover food costs compared with other charter schools.
The state conducts an annual review of charter schools' finances "and in the case of LEAP, this will include a discussion of this contract," state Department of Education spokeswoman Barbara Morgan said Friday.
"We have not received any complaints about the services rendered by the chef or the company, so we are not investigating it in any way," she added.