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CPS defends keeping Aramark to clean schools despite history of problems

“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,” a district official said at the Board of Education meeting Wednesday.

Counterclockwise: Chicago Public Schools General Counsel Joseph Moriarty, Interim Chief Operating Officer Lindy McGuire, Interim Chief Education Officer Maurice Swinney and Interim Chief Executive Officer José Torres attend the Chicago Board of Education’s first in-person meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic began at the Chicago Public Schools headquarters in the Loop, Wednesday morning, July 28, 2021.
Counterclockwise: Chicago Public Schools General Counsel Joseph Moriarty, Interim Chief Operating Officer Lindy McGuire, Interim Chief Education Officer Maurice Swinney and Interim Chief Executive Officer José Torres attend the Chicago Board of Education’s first in-person meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic began at the Chicago Public Schools headquarters in the Loop, Wednesday morning, July 28, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools officials defended their recommendation on Wednesday to keep Aramark’s custodial services, acknowledging the cleaning company’s history of problems with filthy schools but giving assurances that new ways of tracking cleaning complaints in-house will yield better results than in the past.

As children prepare to return to class amid a surge of the coronavirus’ Delta variant, top facilities officer Clarence Carson promised the Board of Education at its meeting Wednesday that safeguards he’s put into place will hold the cleaning giant more accountable than it was in the past.

“There have been a lot of challenges throughout that tenure, one way or another,” said Carson.

“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.”

Carson was on the CPS team which a year ago had promised to dump Aramark and SodexoMAGIC as facilities managers.

But late last week the Sun-Times reported that the district was planning to award a new contract to Aramark. School board members Wednesday voted unanimously 7-0 to authorize a $369 million deal that leaves the Philadelphia-based Aramark in charge of cleaning 600-plus school buildings for the next three years, starting Oct. 1 under a new facilities management system that brings all maintenance, cleaning and complaint management, plus tracking, back under CPS control. CPS has already paid the company more than $500 million since 2014 when it privatized the management of cleaning and other building facility services.

For years, parents and school staff complained about filthy schools, and the Chicago Sun-Times documented problems such as pests and rodent droppings in CPS buildings. Some of the worst problems were in neighborhoods with high numbers of low-income Black children, and there were allegations that unannounced inspections to ensure cleanliness weren’t anything but surprises.

“I was an LSC member during the early [privatization] days and that transition, and the filthy schools, was not a myth,” School Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said Wednesday. “That was reality, that was experienced on the ground. So I understand the skepticism.”

Carson vowed there would be no hiccups or delays in the transition to the new system at the start of October, when the Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle Americas LLC will work with CPS leaders to manage school engineers under a separate $376.5 million deal. JLL has already started to help with the transition, Carson said.

He also told the board that 400 promised extra custodians had been hired already — a handful of them by the district directly and the rest by private companies. Those janitors will all transition to district employment by October, he said.