A better way to ensure clean and safe classrooms in Chicago’s public schools

Custodians have brought their concerns to the school board. But they have been ignored.

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The Chicago Board of Education meets in person for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, at CPS headquarters in the Loop, on July 28.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Board of Education have missed an important opportunity to ensure our Chicago Public Schools are clean, safe and well-managed.

In 2019, the school board and Lightfoot announced that CPS would not renew the contracts of two private companies — Aramark and Sodexo — that had a proven record of mismanagement and uncleanliness. Instead of upholding their commitment, the mayor and the board have now worked out a backroom deal without input from custodial staff to keep Aramark on the payroll.

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Aramark has a history of cutting corners and failing to meet its obligation to keep schools and facilities clean. Their mismanagement of custodial staff has created an unsafe learning environment for all. The custodial staff has been forced to take on more work during their shifts, purchase their cleaning supplies, and use machinery without proper training.

Our union, the Service Employees International Union, Local 73, which represents these workers, has filed countless maintenance requests that have gone unfilled. Some custodians have been asked to sign documents for training they never received. Under third-party management, custodial staff has worked on the front lines of the pandemic without the resources they need to keep schools clean.

Photos of dirty schools have been shared in the media and many have stated custodians aren’t doing their jobs, when, in reality, private companies like Aramark and Sodexo continually fail to provide workers with the proper resources and support to maintain clean schools.

Custodians have brought our concerns to the school board. We’ve raised our concerns at work and testified at board meetings. We have demanded direct supervision through CPS and not a third-party company, adequate supplies with working equipment, proper training, appropriate staffing, and a voice in all decisions that impact our work. But the board has ignored us and shut us out of the decision-making process. The board has claimed to have surveyed all stakeholders regarding the contract renewal but has not approached a single custodian about our issues.

Custodians are an important part of the school community, but our work is devalued and our opinions are disregarded. At the start of the pandemic, we were praised as heroes. Custodians reported in-person and have been the cornerstone for CPS’s reopening plan and the safety of our school community. This decision to renew Aramark’s contract is a slap in our faces. Roughly 2,600 school board and private custodians are responsible for cleaning 67 million square feet of schools. Shouldn’t our voices be heard, too?

By ignoring the concerns of custodians, CPS continues to ignore the root causes of school uncleanliness: a lack of respect and accountability for the work custodians perform every day.

Enough is enough. Let’s stop the lip service and the overpromising, understaffing and under-delivering essential services just to keep costs down. Custodians understand the hygienic needs of our schools, and we know what needs to be done to ensure our schools are clean and safe. Give us a seat at the table and a voice. Our children and school community deserve it.

Dian Palmer is president of SEIU Local 73.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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