Dirty schools: CPS cheated to pass cleanliness audits, janitors say

Drake Elementary School, 2710 S Dearborn, which failed in pest-control and bathroom categories during a "blitz" inspection on Dec. 17. | CPS

When parents, teachers or students have complained in recent years about dirty classrooms and lunchrooms, Chicago Public Schools officials have pointed to high “pass” rates found in audits by an independent firm that monitors the work of private companies overseeing the cleaning.

But following Chicago Sun-Times reports revealing that CPS staffers found filthy conditions at 91 of 125 schools they examined, janitors now tell the newspaper that supervisors cheated to pass those cleanliness audits.

Janitors at two Chicago schools say their bosses alerted them whenever the auditing company would be coming — sometimes several days ahead — and also tipped them about where to clean.

That allowed them to focus on areas they knew the auditors would check — and skip other parts of the schools that wouldn’t face inspection, the school janitors say.

Also, extra help would be provided in the form of “floater” custodians and additional cleaning supplies, they say.

An inspector who checks on hundreds of schools acknowledges that the way CPS set up the system was “ludicrous,” allowing schools to learn in advance of coming inspections so they could take steps to pass.

Maxine Gladney, who has cleaned Powell Elementary School in South Shore for six years: “That’s the only time you get supplies, everything you need — when they’re having a ‘blitz’ or an inspection.” | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

“They bring staff over to help,” says Maxine Gladney, who has cleaned Powell Elementary School in South Shore for six years. “That’s the only time you get supplies, everything you need, when they’re having a ‘blitz’ or an inspection.”

Maria Villegas, who cleans Sayre Language Academy Elementary in Galewood on the Northwest Side, says she has been told ahead of time by her supervisor when an inspector was coming.

As a result, Villegas says, “When there is an inspection coming, we leave some things that we [normally] do daily. We leave them to clean the stairwells really well, they’re [inspectors] going to enter through there. Clean the first couple of bathrooms because they’re going to check those. The person who inspects enters the first floor checks the bathrooms, checks the stairwells — but doesn’t go to the upper floors.”

Maria Villegas at Sayre Language Academy Elementary in Galewood on the Northwest Side says she has been told ahead of time by her supervisor when an inspector was coming. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Such tricks are needed to pass audits, she says, because the number of janitors at most schools was cut when the private companies took over, and there’s not enough manpower to keep up.

“What I ask is that they bring more personnel to the schools because all the schools are dirty, all of them,” Villegas says. “And I think, too, at every school the priority should be the kids and the teachers.

“In some schools like mine, there are about 400 kids, and it’s just two of us at night cleaning it. Can you imagine two people to clean a school with 400 children?”

In 2014, CPS handed control over the bulk of its custodians — about 1,700 full-time positions — to two private contractors. Officials said at the time the $340 million move would result in cleaner schools while saving money and posing fewer problems for principals.

SodexoMAGIC was put in charge of all facilities work — including cleaning — for several dozen schools.

A second company, Aramark, was given a list of schools to clean. But, amid complaints from principals and parents over the work at those schools, the school system’s administrators told Aramark to shift to the way Sodexo worked.

Custodial staff working for those companies was cut to the current total of about 1,100 full-time positions.

At Powell Elementary, Gladney says she frequently buys Fabuloso cleaner for the school with her own money because requests for more cleaning solution get turned down.

“They tell us it’s not in our budget, Aramark tells us,” she says.

To monitor the now-privatized work, CPS hired another company, Massachusetts-based Premier Facility Solutions, to “provide independent audits on cleanliness at various schools.” It said Premier would “indicate quality of custodial services and help to maintain adequate levels of cleanliness at CPS facilities.”

Premier now has a two-year, $250,000 contract with CPS to inspect schools for about $200 each.

In January 2017, Forrest Claypool — then CPS’ chief executive officer — asked the Chicago Board of Education to approve an additional $427 million in contracts to those companies to take over all facilities management duties performed by school engineers, plans that have been delayed a year until this July.

At that time, CPS said 96 percent of schools passed their latest cleanliness audits — “the highest percentage in three years.”

But in a series of detailed “blitz” inspections of cleanliness this past winter, inspectors from CPS’ own staff and Aramark quietly documented what they characterized as “critical” problems at 91 of the 125 schools they looked at. Food-preparation equipment was dirty, bathrooms smelly, floors not properly cleaned, and evidence of pests remained, the reports showed.

Had CPS been inspected by the Chicago Department of Public Health, as private businesses are, it could have faced fines as high as $37,000 at a single school, the Sun-Times has reported.

The blitz inspections began after a rodent infestation was discovered in November at Mollison Elementary School in Bronzeville.

The worst results from those inspections were at schools that predominantly serve poor kids of color. Of the 17 schools with more than $20,000 in potential fines, 12 serve populations where at least four of five children are African-American or Hispanic and low-income.

Parents and students weren’t informed of the inspections nor about any of the problems found at their children’s schools.

The mother of an asthmatic kindergartner at Robinson Elementary School was “disgusted” at the amount of dust found in her son’s classroom.

Responding to the initial Sun-Times’ findings, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he was “beyond outraged.”

March 29, 2018, Sun-Times report in which Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he was “beyond outraged” over school conditions.

“It’s unacceptable. Janice knows that, that’s why she’s going to fix it,” Emanuel said of CEO Janice Jackson, whose daughter and stepson are CPS students. “That’s not what we want for our children, and it’s not going to stand.”

African-American aldermen, including the chair of the City Council’s Black Caucus, called for reforms, including a return to putting school engineers in charge of supervising cleaning and all other facilities work. And the Chicago Teachers Union demanded to know when the district’s remaining schools will be examined — something CPS now says will happen after July.

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By now, all of the schools that failed the first blitz inspections have been reinspected, but not all passed the second time around.

CPS declined to release its latest cleanliness audit reports and the reinspection reports, which it doesn’t share with schools.

An Aramark spokeswoman did not return messages seeking comment.

Arnie Rivera, CPS’ chief operating officer, acknowledges the shortcomings and will institute monthly inspections in all of its buildings using a new Quality Assurance team once the companies have taken over facilities in all schools planned for July.

In an interview Friday, John Moran, the owner of Premier Facility Solutions, says he singlehandedly inspects all of CPS’ 570 buildings. According to Moran, CPS used to have him directly notify Aramark and Sodexo “which schools I’d be looking at in the next month or so. Then once I hit one school, phones would start ringing.”

Moran says he then inspected schools by ZIP code, so school employees were able to figure out approximately where he’d go next.

As of October, though, that stopped, he says. Leslie Fowler, CPS’ newly elevated facilities chief, made that and other changes.

Also dropped was CPS’ insistence on averaging schools’ inspection scores across a number of different categories, according to Moran. He says before then, even if a school got a failing mark in what’s considered a major category, it still could pass the inspection because it had enough points in other categories to pull its average to a passing level.

Now Moran says he gives only an overall pass-fail grade for each school. If a school gets a failing mark for its classrooms, or for its restrooms or for its lunchroom, that single bad grade means the building fails the audit.

“It was ludicrous to carry on that methodology because the contractor will clean the hallway and not the bathroom and average the results,” he says of the previous grading method. “It just showed you that the contractors were teaching for the test, sort of. They know how the system worked, and the old administration at CPS favored the contractor.”

And that “gave an advantage to the contractor that was probably not in the best interest of everyone,” Moran says.

CPS spokesman Michael Passman says the school system’s facilities team “does not currently receive advance notice” of audits.

Passman also says, “The facility conditions we observed in some schools earlier this year were completely unacceptable, and we are realigning our facility services to better ensure that every student is able to attend a school that is clean and well maintained.”

The testing changes that CPS agreed to resulted in lower “pass” rates for both Sodexo and Aramark, according to Moran — about 78 percent or 79 percent for the two companies, down from about 92 percent for Aramark under the old system and 96 percent for Sodexo.

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