A month before teachers and students return to Chicago Public Schools buildings and amid a surge of the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant, district leaders are still finalizing who will be cleaning classrooms — and are making plans to rehire Aramark despite a history of problems with the janitorial behemoth.
With Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s support, CPS leaders announced last year that they would dump private facilities managers Aramark and SodexoMAGIC, which for years had near full autonomy in maintaining schools, including many that remained filthy. The plan was to return control and oversight of the cleaning and upkeep of hundreds of schools back to CPS employees while finding a new vendor to help run those operations.
But even with a new company in place, the move to a different model of facilities management has dragged on and left little time for a complicated transition. The compressed timeline led SodexoMAGIC to warn the schools system of “putting itself and potentially its vendor partners at high risk for failure” as the clock ticks on summer break.
Pressed for time a year after declaring its relationship with Aramark over, CPS reversed course and planned as of Friday to ask the Board of Education as soon as next week to authorize rehiring Aramark to clean all its school buildings, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.
District officials are promising more oversight this time around.
Though masks, social distancing and good ventilation have proven most effective to combat the airborne coronavirus, the stakes around clean schools are still as high as ever this fall. Families and health experts are concerned about COVID-19’s latest mutation, the worryingly transmissible Delta variant that’s behind a surge in cases in Chicago and around the world.
About two-thirds of CPS’ 340,000 students are under 12, still too young for shots. Just 36% of Chicago kids over 12 have been fully vaccinated.
Since Chicago reopened June 11, COVID-19 case rates have nearly doubled and in the past week jumped by 69% with a daily average of 115 new infections — well off last year’s peak but trending in the wrong direction. About 17 children a day have been diagnosed with the virus over the past week, city data shows.
In an effort to mitigate parent concerns, interim CEO José Torres told families Thursday that CPS will continue to require students, staff and visitors to wear masks indoors whether or not they’re vaccinated, except when eating or drinking.
He said some kids will eat breakfast and lunch in classrooms, not just in cafeterias, to keep children three feet apart when possible. That means more sources of food and garbage, more potential messes to clean up.
Most new janitors not on job yet
But the vast majority of the 400 new custodians CPS vowed to bring on during the pandemic and keep for the upcoming school year haven’t been hired.
The Sun-Times has documented serious problems with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC’s performance, long a source of complaints to the Board of Education from parents and school staffers.
Prior to 2014, school engineers and principals managed their own buildings. But under the outsourced system first introduced that year, the two companies ran all operations, including managing various other vendors that each specialized in services such as groundskeeping, snow removal, pest control and cleaning.
CPS promised to hire more cleaning staff and keep a better watch on their vendors.
A few months into the pandemic lockdown, district leaders announced that supervision of cleaning and other services would return in-house by the 2021-22 school year, with CPS employees overseeing the private companies carrying out those services. Contracts with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC were to be phased out before July 1.
This spring, CPS said it needed more time to carry out the transition, so it extended their contracts through Sept. 30.
The new management model authorizes one vendor, working hand-in-hand with CPS staffers, to oversee different service contracts. A request for bids went out last September, but the bidding was canceled a day after responses were due because CPS wanted to “increase competition,” according to a letter to CPS officials from SodexoMAGIC complaining this summer about the process.
An almost identical second request followed a few days after the cancellation, garnering bids from Aramark and SodexoMAGIC, plus Jones Lang LaSalle Americas LLC, or JLL, which sat out the first round.
Chicago-based JLL prevailed, with Board of Education members authorizing a deal in June to spend up to $125.5 million per year for three years.
CPS won’t say whether its contract set to start on July 1 with JLL has been finalized. JLL typically manages commercial real estate and facilities and doesn’t show any work in K-12 schools on its website.
A JLL representative did not return messages seeking comment.
Separately, another bid request for janitorial services was also issued last fall. Three of the bidders were called back to present to the board, says one of them, Chicagoland Janitorial LLC. The other two were Aramark and ABM Industries Inc. — which had ties to a recently indicted high-level CPS staffer and once had a CPS contract offer rescinded at the last minute because of its mishandling of sexual abuse allegations.
Chicagoland Janitorial, a local company consisting of seven firms owned by minorities and women, says it was informed months ago it didn’t make the cut, leaving ABM and Aramark in the running.
CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said at some point in the process the district accidentally told ABM it would be awarded the new janitorial contract but cleared up that mistake.
Then, for reasons it won’t explain, CPS chose Aramark, sources said. Bolton denied a decision has been made.
Best of bad options
A source with knowledge of the process said there were issues with each of the bidders and, to some in the district, Aramark represented the best of bad options.
Asked about the deal, ABM spokesman Michael Valentino was unaware Aramark would be picked and said, “It is our understanding that the bid process remains open.”
CPS would not make any officials available for an interview ahead of Monday morning when the agenda is published for Wednesday’s school board meeting.
Bolton said in an email that the district was “not in a position to discuss the recommendation of a custodial services vendor at this time,” but stressed that under the new system, JLL would work with CPS to “reshape facilities support for schools.” The role of the custodial vendor, Bolton said, would in turn be less prominent with “significantly more oversight and transparency.”
Mayoral spokesman César Rodriguez and Aramark spokeswoman Heather Dotchel declined to answer questions, directing them back to CPS.
SodexoMAGIC, partly owned by ex-NBA superstar Magic Johnson, bid only for the broader facilities contract, according to a spokesman.
But delays in installing a new company — a transition CPS told bidders would happen last February or March now slated for October 1 — led Sodexo leaders to warn CPS twice in writing that their new timelines were unfeasible, especially as CPS’ top three leaders were about to leave.
“If CPS proceeds, it could be putting itself in a ‘disaster waiting to happen’ scenario,” read an eight-page May 7 email, obtained by the Sun-Times, to CPS’ outgoing chief operating officer.
A day before the Board unanimously approved the JLL deal last month, Sodexo also filed an eight-page bid protest with CPS, renewing its warnings about decisions that could allow the Chicago Teachers Union to “raise unsubstantiated claims and create political theater and negative media attention” — and questioning the legitimacy of the bidding process.
CTU negotiations continue with the district over health and safety measures for the fall.
Union sees problems ahead
The timing of the re-bid, CPS answering questions from JLL after a deadline to do so had passed and “JLL’s decision to respond to the New Solicitation after declining to respond to a nearly identical RFP raises red flags regarding the process,” SodexoMAGIC’s letter read. “The award of a new contract to a vendor who lacks experience in the public school system at this point in time is ill advised and poses grave risks for the Board, the students and parents it services, and the principals, teachers and other staff at the Board’s 600-plus schools.”
Both times, SodexoMAGIC proposed extending its own multimillion-dollar contracts to buy CPS more time to settle into its new model.
CPS’ Bolton said the district has “ample time” for the transition. Asked about SodexoMAGIC’s letters, Bolton said existing vendors “continue to have the same resources and staffing, and are expected to fulfill their contractually obligated duties for the safe opening of schools on August 30 and a smooth transition to the new model on October 1.”
SEIU Local 73, the union that represents Board of Education-employed custodians, predicted problems would arise with the new facilities management model as they have with previous systems.
“Any private organization that takes over, we have a concern. Our experience hasn’t been positive,” union executive Science Meles said. “We went through all of those changes and every single time they said this time is going to work. And it has not worked.”