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EXCLUSIVE: Worcester Schools Defend $13K Ciao Bella Bill

Saturday, May 05, 2012

 

School administrators are responding to a GoLocalWorcester investigation that revealed Worcester school administrators spent $12,000 at Ciao Bella for lunches. 

“The purchase of food is monitored closely and used sparingly and only when justified to and approved by district administration,” Chief Financial Officer Brian Allen said in a report provided to GoLocalWorcester on Friday in which he noted the school department has stayed within its School Committee-approved budget for food.

Report on food

GoLocalWorcester first reported that the school department spent almost $12,000 in less than two years on food from the restaurant and caterer on Grove Street. The information is included in the city’s online Vendor Check Register, which lists the checks paid out to vendors by each department.

In documents Allen provided after the story was published, he detailed $13,630.82 of food purchases from July 2010 through April 2012. Of that, according to the documents, $4,991.12 was paid for through “various grants.” The remaining $8,639.70 was paid out of the school’s Miscellaneous Educational OM (Operations and Maintenance) budget, over two fiscal cycles. A line item in that budget allows $8,000 for food expenses, “When they are determined to be appropriate in light of attendance, time, or location circumstances.”

GoLocalWorcester also requested, through School Superintendent Melinda Boone, information on all food expenditures beyond Ciao Bella over the past two years. Allen said that request was not brought to his attention.

School Committee meals

School Committee members expressed surprise and concern upon learning of the money spent at Ciao Bella. However, according to the information Allen provided, the committee ordered food on the school’s tab from Ciao Bella during meetings on three separate occasions last year – June 2, June 16 and Dec. 19 – totaling $838.94. Allen said he did not have a detailed breakdown of what food was ordered on those occasions.

School Committee member Brian O’Connell said he did not initially mention the committee’s tab because, “we didn’t have any invoices for that and I wasn’t sure what they were going to include in their report.”

O’Connell said the two meetings in June were likely budget sessions, which start at 4 p.m. and run well into the night. There were probably other school personnel attending the meetings, he added, which might account for the high price tag.

“It could be food that was given to a variety of people attending the meetings,” O’Connell said. “I’m assuming that’s the case, because that sounds awfully high.”

The food for those meetings, he said, would be included in the school budget. He was not immediately sure what the committee was meeting about on Dec. 19. Outside of those occasions, O’Connell, said, committee members each pay for their own food from Ciao Bella in executive session.

His colleague, John Monfredo, echoed O’Connell’s comments, saying, “We are very careful as to how we spend taxpayers’ money and every budget year we do look at each item carefully. As a school committee, we will continue to do that.”

School Committee Vice Chairperson Tracy O’Connell Novick had agreed, but had a different take, laughing as she said, “When we weren’t doing dinner, we all noticed we were having more contentious meetings than if were eating.”

She did say she planned on asking about starting to use other vendors and not just Ciao Bella.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not ‘high end’

As for the administration’s purchase of food through Ciao Bella, Allen said he didn’t consider it wasteful spending and said a keen eye is kept on all food expenses.
“I wouldn’t consider Ciao Bella high end,” he said. “Obviously, looking at the detailed invoices, what I could see is that it was in many cases 150 people being served, or 50, or 25. They are serving a lot of people. The per-person cost certainly is not extravagant.”

Most of the food bought through Ciao Bella, Allen said, consisted of either pizza or roll-up sandwiches.

“They are not $17 entrees,” he said, adding, “The superintendent takes this kind of spending very seriously because of public perception. “

In fact, Allen continued, food purchases are among the only district-wide expenses that require sign-off from Boone, Allen or Chief Academic Officer Jeffrey Mulqueen. The superintendent, he said, implemented that policy in 2010.

Among the Ciao Bella expenses accounted for in Allen’s report was $2,161.21 for a two-day, annual summer leadership training program for 150 principals, assistant principals, and administrators in 2010 and $2,060.36 for the same purpose last year. Allen also accounted for a $383.39 tab on March 5 this year that was attributed to Burncoat Quadrant Manager Mary Meade Montaque. That bill was for food provided to parents attending a Level 4 meeting for Burncoat Preparatory School.

Novick acknowledged that the $8,000 line item for food is among the “most heavily debated line items each year. We usually end up getting a breakdown like you did.”

Worcester Tech supported

Asked whether he thought school officials should make use of the culinary arts program and Skyline Restaurant at Worcester Technical High School, Allen noted that most of the programs during which food was served were held after school hours and well into the evening.

“Obviously, we want to support our own programs,” Allen said. “Clearly, they’re our own students and they’re doing a great job. We certainly would want to take advantage of that. But a lot of these programs, as I see it, were held during the summer. Most of the others were held during the night. I don’t know which of these would be appropriate for Worcester Voke.

Novick said when School Committee meetings used to be held at the school, members would buy food there.

For meetings held during the day, Allen said, it simply makes more sense to keep participants on premises, rather than send them out to get their own food.

“Instead of disbursing everyone from a building and trying to reassemble, you can get more accomplished by keeping them all at the same place,” said Allen. “It’s more efficient. Sometimes, it’s a better decision to order pizza or roll-up sandwiches.”

Worcester resident Frances Lundblad listened intently as the amount of money spent on food was relayed to her. She saw nothing wrong with the practice, saying, “If they have to work through the night, then that’s what you do. You eat.”

 

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