Principals say janitorial group isn’t keeping CPS schools clean

This article was originally published on September 13, 2014.

Filthy buildings. Principals overseeing cleaning or hiring extra help out of pocket. Teachers scrambling to clean classrooms in time for the first days of school. Reports of missing, broken and misplaced equipment. Mouse poop.

That’s what many Chicago Public School principals say resulted after CPS privatized janitorial services in the schools to the tune of $340 million, and neither CPS nor Aramark have fixed the problems even after being informed of the situation.

Some 226 principals (CPS operates 516 schools) responded to a survey taken by AAPPLE, a new activist group under the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. The Aramark contract is the first issue the group is tackling, calling now on the Board of Education to rescind its $240 million contract with Aramark if the facilities giant can’t maintain “ordinary tidiness” standards known in the industry as APPA Level 2.

One Southwest Side elementary principal — who along with others did not want her name printed for fear of retribution — said in a telephone interview that since Aramark took over the school, it has developed a problem with bugs and rodents that are feasting on garbage and on spilled drops of milk on floors that aren’t being cleaned enough, she said.

She’s yet to visit classrooms this year because she has been dealing with too many cleaning issues. The exterminator she called in told her he’s seeing pest problems in lots of schools because their classrooms aren’t being thoroughly cleaned.

Her school used to be spotless. Now, she said, “it’s a nightmare. What bothers me the most is my children, many of them come from environments that are not in the best shape…This is the only welcoming place they get, and I put a lot of time painting classrooms and making things look very friendly or cozy.”

CPS will hold the companies to high standards — or be paid back, said Leslie Norgren, who oversees custodians at CPS. Audits will be held by another company to ensure Aramark is complying in addition to monthly walk-throughs by CPS facility managers, she said.

“Our number one objective was to clean our schools. The second objective was to save money,” she said. “We believe we’ve delivered on both of those.”

The Board of Education voted in February to privatize cleaning services, awarding Aramark a $260 million contract over three years to clean all the schools, and SodexoMAGIC another $80 million for overall facilities management in some pilot schools.

The district boasted up to $40 million in additional savings ($18 million of it on custodians) and “less strain on principals” as well as upgrades from the “same old technology,” CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley said at the time in a PowerPoint presentation. The district promised “a high standard for clean in every school,” “principals freed up to focus on teaching and learning,” and “a world class organization for our world class students!”

Cutting the number of building engineers, “unnecessary overtime” and other custodial reductions saved $29 million since 2012, CPS said. Aramark, in particular, would invest in new equipment and would train, supervise and schedule work of 1,800 custodians.

Aramark did not return a message for comment. On Sunday night, Aramark sent principals an email promising a meeting this week:  “Aramark has heard — loud and clear — the concerns raised by principals around our custodial partnership with Chicago Public Schools, and I fully understand that we have not delivered on the promise of making principals’ lives easier.

“We have heard from principals about insufficient communication, staffing instability, lack of custodial accountability and employee engagement, and know that these cut to the core of what matters to you,” it read.

Norgren said principals used to manage their own custodians.

“Given the complexities and the size of the transition, that is an area where we need to improve,” she said.

Numerous principals said they’re spending more time than ever on cleaning and restocking supplies instead of coaching new teachers and getting into classrooms.

“I have hardworking janitors, but they can’t keep up,” since several were cut, a principal of a 1,000+ kid South Side elementary school said. “When all the kids go to the lunchroom, they use the same bathroom and that bathroom is disgusting.”

Garbage spills out of flimsy new garbage bags, too, she said, and some of the janitors hadn’t been trained to use new equipment.

Another on the North Side complained of broken furniture, a dropped computer and missing instructional materials — things that’ll cost money to replace.

And the principal of Prussing Elementary School in Jefferson Park reported in the survey that some cleaning equipment was never returned after being used at other schools, and provided supplies aren’t holding up to school use. Toilet paper, soap, paper towels and soap dispensers weren’t going to be provided until after students reported to school.

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