Chicago Public Schools’ facilities chief is out after dirty schools scandal

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Leslie Fowler (center) is out as the Chicago Public Schools’ facilities chief. | James Foster / Sun-Times

The Chicago Public Schools’ facilities chief is out in the wake of a scandal over filthy schools.

Leslie Fowler, 49, had led the team at CPS responsible for dealing with the dirty conditions found in 91 of 125 schools in a series of “blitz” inspections last winter.

Fowler, who had no facilities experience until getting a promotion last year from then-CPS CEO Forrest Claypool, had been overseeing cleaning and other facilities management work done by Aramark, the company she left when she went to work for the school system in 2012.

Last month, Fowler flanked CPS’ chief operating officer to assure the Board of Education that schools would be clean and that Aramark and a second private company which together are under contract for nearly half a billion dollars in work through 2020 would be held accountable.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said Thursday that Fowler offered her resignation and that a replacement hasn’t been named. Israel Torres, second in charge to Fowler, was said to be taking over day-to-day responsibilities for now.

“I wouldn’t say I was pressured to do anything,” Fowler said in an interview Thursday. “The direction the district would like to go in and my skill set and what I bring to the table are clearly going into different directions.”

Fowler had spent the bulk of her career in food service, running school lunch programs for Aramark until coming to CPS, initially to head the school system’s nutrition department.

Last August, Claypool added facilities to her title and responsibilities and gave her a $20,000 raise, boosting her pay to $170,000 a year.

She said she spent nine with Aramark, most recently in St. Louis, working with the public schools there.

Shortly after Fowler joined CPS, Aramark landed a major food services contract with the school system, and Fowler soon landed in trouble.

The schools’ inspector general investigated her for dining out with the company’s president during the bidding process for that contract. In a 2015 report, the inspector general called Fowler’s conduct “problematic” but said he couldn’t prove any wrongdoing.

Fowler also worked for a private school in Missouri and served in the U.S. Naval Reserve, according to CPS.

She was credited with bringing back “blitz” cleanliness inspections — previously common at CPS — last December.

“This was my dream job,” Fowler said. “I came to do what I said I wanted to do, and I’ve done it.”

The blitz inspections, conducted jointly by Aramark and CPS, checked school cleanliness in the wake of a pest infestation at Mollison Elementary School in Bronzeville in November.

Of 125 schools inspected from December to February, 91 got failing marks, the Chicago Sun-Times has reported, and the revelations of dirty conditions of the schools left Mayor Rahm Emanuel “beyond outraged.”

CPS monitored the work by Aramark and SodexoMAGIC, using outside audits. But janitors from two schools and the inspector responsible for the outside audits told the Sun-Times in April that CPS supervisors cheated to pass those tests.

The Board of Ed has agreed to expand Aramark’s responsibilities, effective July 1, under a $259 million contract that will add oversight of all facilities services — including landscaping and pest control — to the company’s cleaning duties at the majority of CPS schools.

Sodexo has a similar deal for $168 million in addition to $60 million it’s to be paid for overseeing the schools it already has been working at under a pilot program.

As the head of facilities for CPS, Fowler oversaw more than 500 schools and a $336 million budget this school year.

Before her promotion, that post hadn’t been filled for six months, since her predecessor Jason Kierna left in February 2017 amid questions about whether he lived in the city, as the school system’s residency rules require.

Kierna had succeeded Paul Osland, who held the post for less than a year after running CPS’ transportation department. And Osland followed Patricia Taylor, who moved to CPS in 2009 after taking an early pension from the CTA’s facilities department.



• CPS’ dirty secret, March 28, 2018

• Dirty schools: CPS cheated to pass cleanliness audits, janitors say, April 8, 2018

• Reward for dirty schools? $259 million more from the Chicago Public Schools, April 22, 2018

• Dirty schools unacceptable, Chicago Board of Ed says, vowing to keep closer tabs, April 26, 2018

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