It’s déjà vu all over again with complaints about dirty Chicago schools

After years of nauseating complaints, it’s time for an independent analysis to figure out how to fix the current system of custodial privatization — or whether it should be scrapped altogether.

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Maria Davila (left), the mother of four students at Eberhart Elementary School in Marquette Park. Her daughter Giselle Torres (right) and one of her younger sons have complained about the school’s bathrooms. 

Maria Davila, left, is the mother of four students at Eberhart Elementary School in Marquette Park. Her daughter Giselle Torres, right, and one of her younger sons have complained about the school’s bathrooms.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago has seen this movie before, and it’s time to put an end to it.

Year after year, Chicago Public Schools pays hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to private companies that are supposed to do one job: Keep the city’s public schools clean.

That job is all the more important now, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as schools resume in-person learning.

Yet, after eight years and nearly $1 billion in private contracts, we’re still hearing the same nauseating complaints: Rodent droppings on floors, cobwebs hanging in corners, garbage cans overflowing, cockroaches, no toilet paper or soap, and on and on.

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It goes without saying that children should never have to attend school in such filthy, deplorable conditions.

Parents and non-custodial staff should not have to step in and clean schools either, as the Sun-Times’ Lauren FitzPatrick and Nader Issa reported took place at Eberhart Elementary this fall when custodial contractor Aramark failed to send replacement janitors to fill in when two workers were on planned medical leave.

“Eberhart is a community that, we’re going to step in, we’re going to make things happen, we’re going to pull it together, we’re gonna work,” career services counselor Darlene Randall told the Sun-Times. “But it doesn’t make it right.”

CPS blames labor shortages for its problems. The district finally did something about the conditions at Eberhart — after FitzPatrick and Issa asked about the lack of cleanliness there.

“I share the anger and frustration of our school principals and families over the conditions of some of our schools,” says CPS CEO Pedro Martinez. “I am looking at the issue closely to understand how we can strengthen our services and ensure we are meeting the standards that our students, staff and parents deserve.”

CPS has got to get its act together on this.

We’ve got a suggestion: An independent, outside analysis to determine how to fix — or whether to end altogether — a system of privatization that has yet to deliver on its promise of cleaner schools.

A history of complaints — and another big contract

Earlier this year, Aramark, the company that has been the main target of cleanliness complaints, was nevertheless given a three-year, $369 million contract to clean all of the district’s 600-plus schools. A second firm, Sodexo, was cut out altogether.

Meanwhile, CPS touted a new oversight system that officials said would ensure better service: CPS managers, with the help of another private firm that was awarded a contract of $375 million, would oversee custodial staff.

This oversight, according to the district, is supposed to provide improved services to schools.

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But problems have still cropped up, as FitzPatrick and Issa found. By mid-October, CPS was offering overtime of as much as 2.5 times normal pay to engineers to open schools, so custodial crews could catch up on cleaning.

It was déjà vu all over again.

As FitzPatrick first reported in a series of stories in 2018, dozens of schools have failed cleanliness inspections conducted by CPS. Those inspections found atrocious conditions — including pest infestations, filthy food-preparation equipment, and bathrooms that were dirty, smelly and lacked hot water — and CPS quietly halted the inspections before completing all of them.

Schools that did pass muster often did so only because supervisors cheated, alerting janitors about inspections ahead of time.

“That’s the only time you get supplies, everything you need, when they’re having a ‘blitz’ or an inspection,” one worker said at the time.

CPS can’t say it didn’t see the warning signs. They started back in 2014 when CPS contracted with Aramark and Sodexo, on a promise of cleaner schools and plenty of toilet paper, soap and other supplies at a lower cost than a district-run system.

Hundreds of CPS janitors lost their jobs. Principals lost the authority to supervise their own custodial staff and were forced to turn to the private firms to make sure cleaning got done.

A few months in, then-CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett admitted the transition wasn’t going well. A survey of principals found widespread complaints of dirty schools.

Eight years is long enough. Kids and families have every right to demand better.

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