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EXCLUSIVE: Meal Tab for School Leadership $12k

Friday, May 04, 2012

 

In less than two years, the Worcester School Department has spent almost $12,000 on meals from Ciao Bella Restaurant.

From July 1, 2011 through April 24, 2012 – less than a full fiscal year – the school department has spent $9,109.65 on food from Ciao Bella, a restaurant and caterer on Grove Street. Since July 28, 2010, administrators have rung up a tab of $11,761.90 at Ciao Bella’s alone.

‘Not shocking’

“Normally, I’m not speechless,” said Leonard Zalauskas, the typically outspoken president of the Education Association of Worcester teachers’ union. “I’m hoping they’re not wasting taxpayer money or school department money. It’s not shocking. I’ve been at events where they have food. I just don’t know where they get it.”

Vendor register

GoLocalWorcester gathered the information from the city’s online vendor check register. It is among the options you can choose when searching public records on the site and offers a history of payments made to vendors for all city departments.

Under public schools, the most recent Ciao Bella purchase was attributed to the deputy superintendent on April 24, for $189.26. There was a March 5 tab for $383.39 by the Burncoat Quadrant Manager, according to the register. The Burncoat Quadrant Manager is Mary Meade-Montaque.

What’s in the budget

The school department is allotted $8,000 for “food, meetings and receptions” in a line item under Miscellaneous Operations and Maintenance. In 2011, eight Ciao Bella tabs, totaling $1,232.04, were assigned to that account. The total OM budget was $1.8 million. School committee members acknowledged having talked in the past about spending money for food for the administrative department.

“I know that we’ve had discussions in past fiscal years relating to food purchased out of grants and funding provided for professional development,” said School Committee member Brian O’Connell. “We’ve asked if it could be used to provide lunch and snacks in the course of professional development. I’ve been told the answer was yes, you can, if it is appropriate.”

But is buying meals from a higher-end restaurant considered appropriate? "That’s a valid question", O’Connell said.

“These purchases raise concern as to the propriety of the expense of food from a public fund,” he said. “It’s a significant issue on the importance of community relations.”

On the other hand, O’Connell said, “There may be good reasons. On the surface, they look somewhat extravagant. Whether these expenditures can be properly defended, I certainly hope they can.”

Gathering information

No one from the school department was talking yesterday. Chief Financial Officer Brian Allen told GoLocalWorcester he would compile receipts and information about the purchases. That information had not been provided as of late Thursday.

Boone did not return several telephone calls and an e-mail seeking comment, although a person answering the phone at her office said the meals bought at Ciao Bella “are usually for meetings.”

What is the purpose?

The amount of money the administration spends on food needs to be “reviewed again this year,” according to School Committee member Dianna Biancheria, because “whether it’s within the budget or not, we should be more careful on how we’re spending taxpayer money.”

Biancheria said she has questioned the purpose of budgeting for food in the administrative budget since she joined the committee in 2010.

“I’ve asked what is the purpose and I’ve always been overwhelmed by other (committee) members,” she said. “I feel we have to ensure every dollar that can benefit our students is taken into account.”

School Committee member John Monfredo, responding to a question by e-mail, said, “This is a concern for me. I’m still trying to find out about it.”

‘Protecting taxpayers’

Mayor and School Committee Chairman Joseph Petty would not comment in detail on the issue, saying, “The school administration is currently in the process of pulling together all of the purchase orders to identify the purpose of the spending and I will await review of the information before I comment more specifically.”

He did, however, point out his staff is responsible for buying its own food and drink, saying, “As mayor, protecting the taxpayers of the City of Worcester is paramount. I have been mayor since January and I can state that my office does not use any taxpayer funds for food, water or coffee and we never take one cent of the hard earned taxpayer’s money for granted.”

Worcester Tech

While many of the meetings during which the administration has bought food may be held after school hours, there is an alternative to ordering lunch at Ciao Bella. Worcester Technical High School has an accomplished culinary arts program and students there help run the Skyline Bistro. The restaurant can be used for functions and students cater to organizations that rent it out, although they do not offer off-premises catering.

“Not to my knowledge,” Worcester Tech Principal Sheila Harrity said when asked whether the school department has dined at Skyline Bistro for meetings or ordered food at the student-run restaurant. “They may ask for soda or water.”

Asked whether she thought the school department should make use of the Bistro instead of spending money at places Ciao Bella, Harrity said, “You’ll have to ask them.”

Buy pizza

While saying he was speechless, Zalauskas also said he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the money spent on Ciao Bella’s, saying, “When you’re talking a $600-million (school) budget, $12,000 doesn’t sound like a lot of money.”

When asked whether his family had spent that much eating out over the past two years, Zalauskas said, “No, I don’t think so.”

The school department hosts and participates in hundreds of meetings, he said, and will often hold stakeholder meetings. If a meeting is held at night, or after school hours, he said, it may not be unusual to order food from an outside vendor. On the other hand, when his union has met on weekends, it isn’t Ciao Bella that’s feeding them.

“Quite often, when we have things on a Saturday, we’ll buy pizza,” he said.
 

 

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