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CPS says some schools don’t meet cleanliness standards, offers workers OT pay to fix problem

“Aramark needs to get custodial crews into the schools over the weekend to get them cleaned and up to CPS standards,” the district wrote in an email to building engineers that was obtained by the Sun-Times.

A classroom is being cleaned at South Shore Fine Arts Academy at 1415 E 70th St in South Shore , Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
A classroom is being cleaned at South Shore Fine Arts Academy at 1415 E 70th St in South Shore , Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools officials are planning to send custodial teams into schools starting Saturday for a round of cleaning to get buildings “up to the expected standard,” offering some employees more than double overtime to work the holiday weekend.

The apparent acknowledgement that school conditions are not up to expectations is the latest in a series of problems with the district’s facilities management transition that was supposed to yield better days as the system promised to rid itself of two maligned janitorial companies that have kept filthy schools over the years.

Instead, that move has been marred by delays, communication troubles and the return of Aramark, the same custodial company that CPS promised would no longer clean its schools and which is now sending crews in through the weekend to address the latest cleanliness concerns. And though masks, social distancing and good ventilation have proven most effective to combat the airborne coronavirus, clean schools are still a priority for students, parents and educators during the pandemic.

Officials offered CPS building engineers overtime Saturday and Sunday, plus a rate two-and-a-half times normal pay for the Monday holiday, if they agreed to open their schools so Aramark custodians could go in and clean.

“Aramark needs to get custodial crews into the schools over the weekend to get them cleaned and up to CPS standards,” the district wrote in an email to building engineers that was obtained by the Sun-Times. “Our engineering team is needed to unlock buildings to allow the custodial crews access.

“You are not required to do this overtime,” the email said. “However, it will support getting the custodial condition of the buildings up to the expected standard.”

Building engineers were asked to let the district know by Friday morning if they planned to work over the weekend so CPS’ chief facilities official, Clarence Carson, could finalize a cleaning schedule by Friday afternoon. The work was tentatively expected to start at 7 a.m. Saturday.

A CPS spokeswoman wouldn’t answer how many schools needed cleaning, how many building engineers agreed to work over the weekend or how much the district expects to pay in overtime wages. The district also didn’t explain whether this cleaning plan was tied to the facilities management transition, or whether Aramark had hired the necessary number of custodians.

The district would only say in a statement, “Unfortunately, there have been a few instances in which we’ve experienced a shortage in janitorial staffing at select schools. In those instances, we’ve scheduled the remaining staff to work overtime to provide coverage for those shifts, work through the weekends and utilized temporary substitute custodians to supplement full-time custodians when needed.”

Aramark representatives couldn’t immediately be reached.

Carson has overseen the move to a new model of building management that moved some oversight back in-house — though still partly in the hands of another company — after years of privatization through Aramark and SodexoMAGIC. The change was pegged as a solution to longstanding complaints of dirty schools and poor custodial management by the two companies under a system in which CPS had little to no control.

Following a three-month delay which led to additional payments to Aramark and Sodexo, the transition happened Oct. 1, with CPS taking control of maintenance, cleaning, grounds keeping and the associated complaint management and tracking. The district awarded Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle Americas LLC a $376.5 million deal to work with CPS leaders to manage school engineers and the various subcontractors who will do that building management work.

But under the new format, one of the subcontracts — the one for janitorial services — was given to Aramark to continue cleaning schools and in fact expand its reach to take over the work Sodexo used to perform. School board members in July voted unanimously 7-0 to authorize a $369 million deal that left the Philadelphia-based Aramark in charge of cleaning 600-plus school buildings for the next three years. CPS had already paid the company more than $500 million since 2014 when it privatized the management of cleaning and other building facility services.

Carson was part of the team that vowed last year to drop the district’s relationship with Aramark.

Faced with questions about the company’s return, he told the board ahead of its vote in July, “I do understand all the concerns that are there from prior services, but I know that we have improved those services over the last several years and plan on continuing to improve those moving forward.”