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Dirty schools complaints just won’t go away

Custodians say short-staffing, lack of supplies and mismanagement are to blame. CPS must hold custodial giant Aramark’s feet to the fire to fix the problems.

SEIU Local 1 custodians protest outside of Chicago Public Schools headquarters this week demanding accountability for Aramark and CPS after failure to keep schools clean and safe.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Like school custodian Maria Villegas, we’re frustrated.

Because, as Villegas said Wednesday in reference to yet more revelations about dirty Chicago schools, “Here we are, three years later, and it’s the same exact story.”

Villegas, a custodian at Sayre Elementary in Galewood on the Northwest Side, was among the custodial workers from schools across the city who spoke out publicly to blame dirty schools on short-staffing, a lack of cleaning supplies and mismanagement by custodial giant Aramark.

It is, indeed, deja vu all over again, as we wrote last week, following a report by the Sun-Times’ Lauren FitzPatrick and Nader Issa on Eberhart Elementary on the Southwest Side. Building conditions got so bad there — custodians on medical leave were never replaced with substitutes — that fed-up parents, staff and even some students stepped up to clean their school themselves.

Rodent droppings, overflowing garbage, smelly bathrooms with no toilet paper, cockroaches, on and on — we’ve heard the same complaints, ad nauseam, since 2018. That’s when FitzPatrick first reported so many schools had failed cleanliness audits that CPS halted the inspections. Many schools that passed did so because supervisors cheated.

Just as they did back then, custodial workers came forward with the same litany of issues that hampered their ability to do the job. In 2018, the facilities chief lost his job. His successor, brought in to fix the problem, was ousted just last week.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez says the district will hold itself accountable. The best way to do so is to hold Aramark’s feet closely to the fire.

Custodial workers should not have to spend their own money, as some apparently do, on cleaning supplies, mops and toilet paper so they can do their jobs as professionals.

We don’t doubt that labor shortages and supply-chain issues may play a role in the recent problems. But dirty schools, maddeningly, are nothing new.

“Over my 10 years,” a custodian at King High School said, “it has never been this bad.” (The custodians who protested this week are members of SEIU Local 1, which is a part of the Sun-Times ownership group.)

We continue to favor an outside, independent analysis to determine whether custodial privatization is worth the cost — at a price tag of nearly $1 billion since 2014 — and can be made more effective. Or, maybe it should be scrapped altogether.

Aramark is a multinational, Fortune 500 company that provides food and facilities services to some 500 school districts nationwide. It is the company’s job to figure it out.

If it can’t, CPS must turn elsewhere.

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