Top CPS administrator grilled over janitorial contract

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Facing an avalanche of complaints about the cleanliness of Chicago Public Schools since privatizing janitorial management, a top district administrator who recommended Aramark was grilled by Board of Education officials about the $260 million contract they approved seven months ago.

Board President David Vitale asked Tim Cawley, CPS’ chief administrative officer, to address the many complaints heard during Wednesday’s meeting and in recent press accounts about filthy school conditions.

“I do take responsibility for this change we made in our facilities management,” Cawley said. “As everybody who follows CPS knows, we are facing some daunting financial challenges, so we have to strive for savings in operations and administration so we can keep funds in the classroom . . . but never would we ever compromise safety and cleanliness of our schools to accomplish those savings. “

He told the board that Aramark knows about the problems and has “flooded the zone with managers from around the country at their own expense.”

The seven appointed board members asked an unusually large number of questions about the Aramark deal that four of them approved in February following scant public debate. Records show that Jesse Ruiz abstained from that vote; Mahalia Hines and Andrea Zopp also were not present.

On Wednesday, they asked whether CPS’ prices were too demanding and whether CPS would leverage its giant food contract with Aramark to exert more pressure on the giant service company. They also requested progress updates.

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No one asked about possible effects of laying off an additional 468 janitors of about 2,500 total expected next week.

At the time of the vote, Cawley described the deal as, “truly a win, win, win,” saying it would save CPS millions of dollars, free up principals to focus on instruction and result in cleaner schools.

He acknowledged Wednesday that only the savings have come to pass.

“We don’t think we’ve been successful in getting enough schools cleaner, nor have we been successful in simplifying life for principals,” Cawley said. “As president Vitale said, we have engaged Aramark at the highest levels, at the national level and told them they need to up their game, that they have not gotten it done throughout the district at the level we need it to be.”

Cawley added that by January, which is halfway through the school year, “This will be running very well.”

Several surveys taken meanwhile by the Chicago Teachers Union, the parent group Raise Your Hand and AAPPLE, an arm of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, have reported mass confusion in janitorial management, dirty schools, insufficient supplies and not enough custodians.

Clarice Berry, the association’s president, lambasted the board: “The principals that I represent in Chicago public schools neither want, need nor have confidence in the newly assigned custodial vendors selected by CPS.”

At issue is middle managers chosen by Aramark to supervise the custodians in each building, she said. “No principal, teacher, paraprofessional or student should be made to supervise, teach, provides services or learn in a dirty school,” she said.

Zopp encouraged her colleagues to read Raise Your Hand’s survey, which contains “very disturbing things in there sent from people who are apparently on the ground.”

“I think it’s important to recognize that we stumbled, badly, in some instances, not all, but in some, and . . . even in those schools where we were cleaning well, we made life difficult for the principals and the staff there, Zopp said. “We can’t fix something if you don’t recognize the problem.

“We get that there’s a problem, the board gets it. . . . But we do have to continue to hold people accountable,” she said.

Jennifer Biggs, a Sheridan Math and Science Academy parent and local school council member, told the board about vomit that remained in an elementary classroom over an entire weekend though it had been reported by the teacher immediately.

“Of course parents and staff are very concerned about the drop in cleanliness and the potential health concerns because of this,” she said.

“How does CPS expect our kids to have good attendance if they don’t rid the school of the germs that fester after a bout of stomach incident?” Biggs said. “That is a schoolwide outbreak waiting to happen.”

Building conditions were on the minds of most public speakers Wednesday. Representatives from Hanson Park Elementary, Decatur Classical School and William E. Dever School begged the board to consider alleviating their overcrowding.

Dever has about 800 kids in a building intended for about 600, Principal Rita Ortiz said, with Ald. Nick Sposato (36th) by her side. Though CPS renovated the school to make more room, the community continues to grow, she said, leaving no room for art or music. The PTA recently had to meet on the school’s steps.

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