Working the Story: How the Sun-Times got the scoop on ‘Dirty Schools’
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Sun-Times education reporter shares how she got the dirt on Chicago Public Schools
“Working the Story” is a video feature of the Chicago Sun-Times that explores how our reporters do their jobs.
In this edition, listen as Chicago Sun-Times education reporter Lauren FitzPatrick shares with editor Rummana Hussain how her experience covering Chicago Public Schools for more than five years allowed her to develop the story on filthy conditions in schools, a product of privatized janitorial services.
Video by Marcus DiPaola | Chicago Sun-Times
Transcript of conversation
[00:00:01] HUSSAIN: So you’ve done a series of stories on dirty schools and there’s been at least four or five, six stories that you’ve done as follow up. And you know, a lot of people are overwhelmed hearing about these droppings, dirty floors, expired food, and they’re kind of appalled. And, just wanted to talk to you a little bit about how you got the idea to do this story. I understand that there was a school last year that had failed health inspections, in Bronzeville, and I was wondering if that is what got you started or got you interested in learning about the cleanliness of schools in the Chicago Public Schools system.
[00:00:38] FITZPATRICK: So that rat and mouse and, we’ll call it a rodent infestation at Mollison Elementary School was a catalyst for digging into this as much as I did at this time. But you know I’ll say that, over the last four-and-a-half-years, that CPS has privatized its management of its cleaning services, I’ve been hearing lots of complaints. So it’s kind of something I’ve had my ears open for, for a really long time because there have been lots of complaints about the conditions of schools. But you know in November and in early December when Mollison just had all the poop in it. And it’s an elementary school, little kids. Tips started coming in, I began asking for documents I thought would you know just sort of get at what’s going on with the cleaning contracts, what’s going on in the schools.
[00:01:36] And then I came upon a word, blitz. That got these stories going in earnest.
[00:01:43] HUSSAIN: Where did you see that word?
[00:01:44] FITZPATRICK: People called, people started to call.
[00:01:51] HUSSAIN: Were these janitors that worked at the schools?
[00:01:53] FITZPATRICK: I mean I’m never going to tell you where my tips came from but the phone, which rings from time to time about these kinds of things started ringing more and more about, something is going on. CPS is looking at the schools themselves and blitz was such a great word like it made for really easy Freedom of Information requests, requests for public records to get the inspections and then to get some e-mails from a couple of people at the top of CPS that I thought could be helpful. Of course with CPS it took forever to get any of the stuff back. It took a couple of months but when they finally gave me the inspection reports, I started to read through them and make lists of things and couldn’t believe some of what I was seeing that CPS’ own inspectors had found and documented in really great detail. So again like, more lists, more comparisons, adding it all up we figured out that they got to 125 of their schools whose cleaning services were managed by the private company Aramark and of the 125, 91 of them failed. 91.
[00:03:06] HUSSAIN: That was the number that came out, and then you had you had a lot of pictures in your stories that illustrated the problems in these schools. Were these pictures part of the reports that you got?
[00:03:16] FITZPATRICK: They were. I mean they were an extra public records request, but yeah they were photos that the inspectors took at some of the schools to document what they saw.
[00:03:27] HUSSAIN: When were these inspections done and what was the reaction to them? Did you have a lot of parents being like ‘Oh we’ve been seeing this like for a long time’ or was it something that, it shocked a lot of people that might not have had children in the schools. And these were mostly in the South Side and the West Side, correct?
[00:03:44] FITZPATRICK: Most, there were a lot on the South Side. But no there were several in the North Side too. I would say the worst of them were definitely in South Side schools. But a couple of other awful ones were up north too. So it was spread out a little bit. The inspections were conducted from mid-December until the very beginning of February which was about a week after I started asking for the reports. It was like six weeks, seven weeks. And yet here’s the thing about parents, these inspections were done at their schools. The principals knew because the principals had to let everybody in. But parents weren’t told that the inspections are happening and parents weren’t being told of the results of the inspections. So the first time parents learned about what the inspectors found was when we put them all up on our website.
[00:04:38] HUSSAIN: Wow.
[00:04:38] FITZPATRICK: Yeah. And then we broke the story during spring break. Which just was a coincidence, there was nothing specific about it so it took more parents until kind of the next week to get back to school and read through the reports themselves. Again the phone started ringing.
[00:04:55] HUSSAIN: Did you get a lot of e-mails from parents just furious?
[00:04:59] FITZPATRICK: I mean social media blew up about this, yeah. And there were lots of folks who were like ‘man I told you so.’ Parents who had been turning up to board meetings for years, students who had been turning up to board meetings for a long time. I mean their sense was like, we knew something was up. Here it is in black and white.
[00:05:17] HUSSAIN: What was the reaction [of] the Chicago Public Schools officials? There’s definitely some reaction that they had.
[00:05:24] FITZPATRICK: There has been some reaction. And part of that, so the folks who are now in charge of Chicago Public Schools who are not necessarily the same folks who were in charge in December are totally on the offense here. They get a new chief operating officer who was a former board member and he taught, he’s super familiar with how CPS works. This guy named Arnie Rivera. So he has been all over like ‘we’re going to fix this. And here’s how we’re going to fix this.’ It wasn’t his idea to do the blitzes, that was under the former CEO Forrest Claypool. So Arnie kind of inherited this mess and so did Janet Jackson, who’s now in charge. But it is now completely on them to straighten all of this out. And they seem to understand that really well. So one of the more curious reactions really came from the mayor who came out right away, really strongly, and said he was beyond outraged that kids had to go to school under these conditions. And he too was saying like ‘my people are going to figure this out.’
[00:06:31] HUSSAIN: It’s really interesting. They added, wasn’t there a CPS contract, [seven] million more dollars going into this, or some sort of more money that they’re pouring into this program, more into the contracts, correct? More janitors, because that was one of the complaints right, that the janitors said that they’re short-staffed?
[00:06:49] FITZPATRICK: Yes. So the janitors that do most of the cleaning at CPS. And I’m trying not to get too technical here because as with everything in the schools, it gets complicated fast but the bulk of them belong to a union that is part of the investor group that owns our newspaper and our company. I should say that out loud. They said that some of the problems were that when these private companies took over, yeah they let a lot of people go and that’s how they saved money as they promised CPS that they would. So they threatened to strike and really soon thereafter CPS promised that they’ll hire back permanently a hundred of these custodians and that they’re going to do some super deep cleaning over the summer hoping that like, if it’s like my house if I scrub the house on Saturday or Sunday, maybe by Friday or Saturday maybe it’s not a total disaster anymore. So they’re hoping to do that over the summer. But yeah it’s going to cost them seven million dollars. And the district’s going to pay for it. Not the companies.
[00:07:48] HUSSAIN: And you had a lot of these janitors come and speak with you, right? They were talking about how they were kind of given a heads up before these blitzes and it was kind of like everybody started scrambling and trying to clean the place up.
[00:08:01] FITZPATRICK: And that was one of the crazier parts of this whole, just all of this reporting so far. And I had also been hearing those rumors for a while too. But basically, anytime anyone went to the Board of Education to complain to CPS about bad conditions in a specific school, district officials turned to a separate set of inspections that were required in the contracts that were done by a third party auditor, an independent guy and they would say ‘but everybody’s passing those audits so we don’t, we’ll take a look at your school but basically this cleaning program is working really well.’ After the dirty school stories started coming out, I talked to the janitors about well how do you think that is? How are they passing these audits if you’re saying the conditions on the ground are as bad as you’re saying they are. And they said ‘well we knew about the audits. I mean our bosses would tell us and then we would get supplies that we’d been asking for all along, would turn up all of a sudden and sometimes extra bodies would turn up and I mean we’d be doing all kinds of activity in the couple of days leading up to the auditor coming. Also we kind of knew where he was going to go.’
[00:09:12] HUSSAIN: So it’s extra cleaning there and didn’t some people bring their own cleaning supplies as well?
[00:09:16] FITZPATRICK: Some janitors have said, I mean I’ve heard this from teachers too, people just wanted the schools clean for kids, little kids. Yes they did what it took to make sure their schools were clean.
[00:09:25] FITZPATRICK: So the janitors were saying that basically these inspections were set up, in the last couple of months CPS quietly again changed the way it does the inspection. I ended up getting the auditor on the phone and he explained that in the last couple of months like late last fall, CPS changed the way that, it agreed to change the way that it did these audits so before they used to evaluate your school in a point system. So you got so many points for each area of your school and they all added up to a total. So in theory, you could fail kitchen, you could fail bathrooms, but if you got enough points everywhere else you could pass the whole inspection. They changed it so that now if you fail one of a couple of key areas, classrooms, I think the lunchrooms and bathrooms, which is where kids spend most of their time and which could potentially be the germ-iest, you automatically fail the whole inspection no matter what else your school looks like. So, it was funny too because CPS ran numbers for both models and if they’d stuck with the old points system their pass rates would have been super high like nine out of 10 schools passing, but under the new way it was more like high 70 percent or 80 percent of schools passing. So clearly some schools were passing all along that you would not consider clean.
[00:10:46] HUSSAIN: Have there been any indication that kids have gotten sick from these rodent droppings, expired food from the the dirty schools? Has there been any indication that any kids are sick because of this?
[00:10:59] FITZPATRICK: I don’t yet know, and I’m waiting for those phone calls to come in. So if anybody is watching this and your kids did get sick and you think that’s why I mean please 312-321-2152. I would like to talk to you. I don’t know though, is the truth.
[00:11:16] HUSSAIN: And you’ve been covering education for how many years?
[00:11:20] FITZPATRICK: For five-and-a-half years.
[00:11:24] HUSSAIN: So you know you’ve been a beat reporter and that’s one of the things I think a lot of people who don’t, aren’t familiar with journalism understand about beat reporting is that you’re doing this day in and day out and it’s sometimes mundane. But do you think you got this story because you’re an education reporter and people know who you are? Can you talk a little bit about that and beat reporting and how it kind of helps you get to know people and they get to know you.
[00:11:48] FITZPATRICK: Three hundred percent. This was the reporting. I don’t think this was a story that anybody could have just parachuted into and and gotten. I mean it just took like, the thing about beat reporting is you learn a little bit at a time how a whole system works and then you learn how it’s supposed to work and how it’s not supposed to work.
[00:12:09] And then when something different is going on you know that it’s different than it used to be and then, people get to know who you are and they see your name in the paper and you write one time about a cleaning contract and somebody will call with a tip that maybe means something at the time and maybe it doesn’t. And then, as a beat reporter I mean I routinely ask for documents from the school district about money that they’re spending and copies of contracts so when I got to the point where I heard the word blitz, I knew I need to look at these blitzes, I already had so much back knowledge of what these companies had already, were already supposed to do, and some of the problems from before, and I knew parents who had been complaining at meetings because I had their names in my contacts. I mean I just feel like beat reporting is how most good stories, most good enterprise stories come about where you know you the reporter kind of, setting the agenda and deciding what it is that we’re going to look at and talk about. But you know it’s hard to just have an idea in your head and see it to fruition. I mean there are talented people who manage to do that. But I just can’t say enough good things about beat reporting. I mean you remember when you were…
[00:13:23] HUSSAIN: Yeah, just being at the courthouse I mean people trust you. They see you walking in the courthouse day in and day out. And then they realize that you’re someone that they can trust and they tell you about stories so that’s what I was going to say, do you think that you would have gotten the story if you were just covering something else? I think that’s one of the things people don’t understand, and you know where the records are, you know how long it takes for reports to come out and that’s how it was for me at court hearings. I know when somebody would parachute in they would be always so shocked and overwhelmed at how long it took a case to go to trial. But I explained to people who came in, because you know there were stories and there were longer form stories, but I said it’s kind of like the average. And so you kind of know how things were. And so you probably know how the Chicago Public Schools system works, how they work with the records.
[00:14:07] FITZPATRICK: And you brought up a really good point about trust. I don’t want to say too much about sourcing. But there were phone calls I was able to make where, to people where I have really good, I do have good relationships with them, I’ve got long relationships with them where they did trust that if they wanted to keep something confidential, of course I was going to keep it confidential and if they didn’t want to be involved at all I wouldn’t involve them at all. I mean you can’t, it’s hard to just cold call people and ask them about really bad things that are happening because they don’t know what you’re going to do with their information. So yeah beat reporting is the greatest.
[00:14:47] HUSSAIN: So we’re going to hear more about dirty schools, this isn’t the end right? I believe obviously after your first story you had a couple stories as I mentioned earlier. It’s not over, right? We’ll have a lot more to say about this subject.
[00:14:58] FITZPATRICK: I mean I do because the story still has a long way to go. Here’s the, here’s another kooky quirk in this whole thing, it’s not even a quirk it’s probably just how Chicago Public Schools operates. But they have a company overseeing just the cleaning in the schools that got the blitz inspections and then about a year-and-a-half ago they turned over so much more responsibility and more schools to the same company. So that program is about to get underway fully on July 1st. And then this company is going to be in charge of everything facilities at, I’m trying to remember how many schools and I’m going blank, but at a ton of the schools so they’ll be in charge of the pest control and the landscaping and the cleaning and repairs and things so I mean those are questions I have for CPS now. How is it that you’re giving more responsibility to this company that has struggled to deliver what you wanted them to in the first place, just with cleaning.
[00:16:00] HUSSAIN: Well I’m looking forward to those stories and I’m sure many readers are too. Thanks for talking to me.
[00:16:04] FITZPATRICK: I hope so. Please call.
We invite you to watch other segments of “Working the Story” from the Chicago Sun-Times