Filthy schools and secret contracts: Time to call it quits on private janitors?

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Drake Elementary School, 2710 S. Dearborn St., failed pest and bathroom categories during its Chicago Public Schools “blitz” inspection on December 17, 2017. | Provided photo

The whole mess smells as bad as the school bathrooms that aren’t being cleaned.

That’s the only reasonable reaction to reporter Lauren Fitzpatrick’s stories on the “blitz” inspections that found filthy conditions at dozens of schools where custodial work is managed by private contractor Aramark, which has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts since 2014.

And despite the disgracefully shoddy work, the spigot of millions shows no signs of drying up.


You’d think a multibillion-dollar global company like Aramark, with 270,000 employees in 19 countries and a self-proclaimed “dedication to excellence backed by decades of experience,” could keep schools from becoming rat-infested dumps.

Aramark’s own website touts that the company provides cleaning services for all manner of businesses and institutions that are arguably harder to maintain than an elementary school, no matter how messy the kids are: stadiums and amphitheaters, correctional facilities, hospitals, factories and more. Aramark is the biggest beneficiary of the Chicago Public Schools’ janitorial services privatization plan, though another company, SodexoMAGIC, also is a player in the food and facilities management arena.

You’d also think that CPS would have immediately ramped up its “blitz” of 220 schools once inspectors found dirt, smells and rodents in all but 34 of the first 125 schools. Credible complaints about squalid conditions began trickling in not long after the first $340 million contract — $260 million for Aramark, $80 million for SodexoMAGIC — was approved. You’d think the district would want to know exactly, right away, how widespread and severe the problems are.

But if you think any of those things, you would be wrong.

Professional cleaning standards seemingly don’t apply to Chicago’s public schools, especially those with black and brown students, where most of the worst problems were found.

The workers and their supervisors surely knew they were leaving dirt, smells, trash and rat droppings behind at the end of the day. Maybe Aramark couldn’t keep schools clean because they don’t have enough workers. Maybe some $300 million doesn’t go as far as one might think. If that’s the case, then they ought to do the right thing and tell CPS “Thanks but no thanks.”

Would either company dare to do such a slipshod job at schools in Wilmette, not to mention in the corporate world? If they did, they would no doubt find their latest $427 million contract, plus an additional $108 million extension, in jeopardy. Both the contract and extension were approved in January, but we’re still in the dark about the exact terms. CPS has yet to provide copies of either document, though officials are now promising to do so. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has already recommended that they be made public.

Shame on Aramark for their shoddy work. And shame on CPS, for its role in the saga — the district acknowledges part of the blame for lax supervision of some workers at the 125 schools, and has kept secret the details about public money that, from what we’re seeing, is being largely misspent.

Mayor Emanuel is reportedly “beyond outraged” at the mess, as are African-American aldermen who are demanding action so that kids in their communities can have clean, decent schools.

But this situation shouldn’t be a complete surprise.

It’s been brewing since the district began laying off janitors and building engineers four years ago, stripping schools of employees who were supervised by school principals and had often worked in the same schools for years. The district didn’t promise savings then, saying only that the switch to private contractors had “the potential to improve facility services without increasing costs.” Aramark and SodexoMAGIC got their first contracts, and principals almost immediately began complaining about dirty schools. (The district is promising monthly inspections for all schools, but not immediately.)

With all these problems — schools so filthy they’re at risk of health department fines, righteous outrage from city officials, millions in public money spent via contracts that are as yet secret, inspections that came to a quiet halt after the Sun-Times asked for the records on them — it’s time to call it quits on this scheme.

Maybe those CPS janitors and building engineers weren’t such a bad idea after all.

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