Camden charter's chef gets $24,000 raise, drawing scrutiny

Michele Pastorello was retained under terms of the bid.
Michele Pastorello was retained under terms of the bid.
Posted: February 19, 2013

A March 2012 menu feature at Camden's LEAP Academy University Charter School was grilled cheese, tomato soup, peas, and fresh fruit. This month, the menu features grilled cheese, tomato soup, and strawberry applesauce.

A more striking change than in the menu is what executive chef Michele Pastorello is getting for his work now - a $24,000 raise from last year.

He will make $95,000 this school year - significantly more than comparable food-service directors' salaries in other New Jersey public school districts.

The raise came as part of a new food-service contract the school entered for this year, replacing Aramark with Metz Culinary Management. According to the school's bid specifications, obtained by The Inquirer from a person knowledgeable about the matter, Metz was required to retain Pastorello.

Pastorello is also the live-in boyfriend of the founder and board chair of the charter school, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago. The two are in a "committed relationship," said school spokesman Adam Dvorin.

Because of her personal relationship with Pastorello, Bonilla-Santiago recused herself from any votes dealing with the food-service contract, Dvorin said. He said neither Bonilla-Santiago nor Pastorello were available for interviews.

A school district of fewer than 5,000 students would generally pay a food-service director - the post comparable to executive chef at LEAP - between $45,000 and $50,000, said Tom Dermott, president of Clarion Group, a food-service consulting firm. A suburban district with 20,000 to 30,000 students could pay about $60,000, or at most $80,000, he said.

But $95,000 is "pretty steep . . . well above market rate" for a charter school with about 1,000 students, Dermott said.

The food-service director for the nearby Pennsauken School District, which has 5,603 students, has a $76,206 salary, according to school officials. The Cherry Hill School District food-service director, who is an Aramark employee, makes about $50,000, according to a person familiar with the contract. That district has about 13,000 students.

"If the board put in place a bidding requirement in which the only way a bid is accepted is for you to hire someone who could be considered part of immediate family, [this] raises some very serious concerns under the state ethics code," said David Sciarra, executive director of the New Jersey Education Law Center, which advocates for students in poor districts, such as Camden.

He said that a "committed relationship" or live-in boyfriend could be considered immediate family under the ethics code.

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.

When seeking food-service bids in April, LEAP officials specified pay and benefits for three food service employees who had to be retained, including Pastorello, according to the bid documents. Two hourly workers received relatively small raises.

The school said it received only one bid for the contract: Metz, of Luzerne County, Pa. Metz officials did not return requests for comment. The bid specifications did not explain why such a large raise was necessary for Pastorello.

LEAP's website says Pastorello, who has more than 30 years of "international culinary experience," helps prepare students' meals and educates students and parents on healthy eating.

The state Department of Education, which has general oversight of charter schools, does not have food-service contract guidelines for the schools, said department spokesman Richard Vespucci.

"The charter school's trustees are responsible for setting pay scales and adhering to the bidding laws," Vespucci said.

Calls and e-mails to various board members, including Rutgers-Camden chancellor Wendell Pritchett and Camden County College president Raymond Yannuzzi, were not returned Friday. Board member Robert Everingham, founder of a mergers and acquisitions firm, declined to comment when reached at his office.

Krishna Thiagarajan, former president of Symphony in C orchestra in Camden who since January has been executive director of New York's Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, served on the LEAP board until November. He said he did not recall seeing any bids or contracts with a substantial raise for the executive chef.

"There were a few board meetings I missed . . . but I would've probably noticed it" if the salary documents were part of the meeting packages, he said.

"Questions about Pastorello's employment history pose an unreasonable conundrum to Dr. Santiago," Dvorin said. He produced state disclosure forms filed by her indicating Pastorello as her "partner." The couple live in the Voorhees home that tax records show is owned by Bonilla-Santiago.

State conflict-of-interest rules cover school officials and members of immediate family. It was not clear how a "committed relationship" might be classified.

Questions of conflict of interest are addressed by the School Ethics Commission, Vespucci said.

Bonilla-Santiago already has drawn ethics fire from a different direction.

In a lawsuit, LEAP employee Mark Paoli, who served as the school facilities manager for 12 years before being demoted in May, alleges that Bonilla-Santiago "routinely demanded that he perform work on her home while on LEAP Academy time and using LEAP Academy, tools, equipment, and supplies."

She has denied his allegations.

The lawsuit in January came as a LEAP predicament became public: The school acknowledged that it had its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS in November 2010 after it failed to file the required Form 990 for three consecutive years. The revocation put in jeopardy $8.5 million in tax-exempt bonds and could affect the school's fund-raising for a planned new campus in Cramer Hill.

On Friday, Dvorin said LEAP's tax-exempt status had been restored, though IRS records Friday evening continued to show it as revoked.


Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.philly.com/camden_flow/

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