The discovery of rats and rodent droppings throughout the building at Mollison Elementary School in Bronzeville and two failed health inspections there last fall prompted Chicago Public Schools officials to declare they were ordering an all-hands-on-deck series of inspections citywide.
That “blitz” was supposed to inspect 220 schools to start, CPS said. But despite initially finding that problems such as rodent droppings, pest infestations, filthy food-preparation equipment, and bathrooms that were dirty, smelly and lacked hot water, CPS quietly halted the inspections before completing them all, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show — shortly after the newspaper requested information on the early results.
CPS provided blitz reports from 125 facilities that show only 34 of those schools passed inspection by inspectors from the district’s facilities department and Aramark, the private company that manages the custodians and oversees food service. And not all of the schools that were re-inspected passed the second time around, according to hundreds of documents and photos taken at nine schools that were provided under the state’s public records act.
The initial findings were deemed “unacceptable and concerning” by Arnie Rivera, CPS’ new chief operating officer. All the failing schools since have been re-inspected so officials can take some action while students are on break this week, he said.
Yet many of the sanitation problems were serious enough that if the Chicago Department of Public Health were to issue fines, they’d go as high as $37,250 for a single school.
That’s the DuSable high school campus, at 4934 S Wabash, home to about 500 students, nearly all of them African-American, at Williams High School and Bronzeville High School.
Close behind though was Jackie Robinson Elementary School in the Oakland neighborhood, whose 121 African-American students are in third grade and under. Insects were found in classrooms, expired foods were found in the refrigerators, and children’s bathrooms smelled.
“Floors extremely dirty,” an inspector wrote on one of nine typed pages of details from the Dec. 12 inspection resulting in an overall failure. “Rodent droppings 30 under neath shelving rack by fridge.”
Since CPS privatized janitorial services in 2014 under the Aramark and SodexoMAGIC companies, parents and school staffers have complained about school sanitation, leading the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Principals and Administrators Association to track member complaints. Previously, each school had an engineer who was in charge of all facilities-related matters and answered to the school’s principal.
The change put the private companies in charge of managing the custodians, and at the time CPS announced it, officials promised they’d not only save money but also end up with cleaner schools all with less hassle for principals.
Yet as parents and staffers continue to protest dirty school conditions, CPS has been giving more work and responsibility to the two companies, refusing to release details of the mega-deals.
Last January, the Board of Education approved a $535 million expansion to both companies, privatizing school engineers under an “integrated facilities model” that would put Aramark and SodexoMAGIC in charge of most building concerns.
Those plans were supposed to be implemented last July but have stalled, and CPS won’t say why, though it has also rebid some of the work.
CPS signed a contract with Sodexo in the summer, but refuses to release it, despite a recommendation from Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office last month to make the contract public. During the 2016-17 school year, Sodexo was paid $28.5 million and Aramark $152 million for work that included all CPS’ food service. Aramark also apparently agreed to terms of the new deal in January. Work has continues with both companies, paid under a web of expansions of previous agreements
A full roll-out of that stalled integrated facilities management model will happen this summer, said Rivera, who was a school board member before he became CPS’ chief operating officer. At the schools chosen for blitzing, Aramark only manages their cleaning, and that led to problems because no single person could address all of a principal’s concerns, he said.
“The buck stops with us,” Rivera said. “It’s my responsibility now moving forward to make sure that we have the right processes and protocols and more importantly the right leadership in place to hold ourselves accountable, and to hold our vendors accountable. I can’t speak to why that didn’t happen in the past, I’m not going to re-litigate the past, but I’ll say moving forward, we have taken the right steps to improve service.”
An Aramark spokeswoman declined to answer questions about the schools’ cleanliness.
In November, Mollison Elementary failed two inspections by the Chicago Department of Public Health after teachers and families went public with photos of the school’s rat infestation. Flooding the school with more than 40 staffers apparently brought it up to code.
In an email exchange on Dec. 1 with the subject “Lessons learned” then-CEO Forrest Claypool congratulated chief administrative officer Jorge Macias on the success.
“But let’s make sure we stay on top of this and be vigilant in other places we think might be higher risk for infestation,” Claypool wrote.
Macias responded, “The Facilities team is currently performing assessment (Blitz) in multiple schools with higher risk.”
Those inspections were conducted in six of CPS’ 15 networks, starting around Mollison, as inspectors fanned out early in the mornings before students arrived. Failure to pass any critical category — food temperatures, pest control, or restrooms — on a sheet devised by top facilities officials meant the whole school failed, and would get a “full action plan for buildings needing additional support”, as facilities chief Leslie Fowler called it, and then re-inspected. Inspectors also tallied up the number of ticketable offenses for which public health officials could levy fines. Some schools had too many issues to fit on the forms, so inspectors listed them on separate sheets of paper.
Mollison was among the first schools blitzed on Dec. 12. It failed after the inspection team found signs of infestation in the school’s food prep area, multiple classrooms, its heating vents and the student lunchroom — where they noted “15 fresh droppings”. Bathrooms were also found without paper towels or with “dust/dirt/odor”. All the violations could have cost $7,000 in public health citations.
Some of the biggest problems were at schools serving poor children of color.
Of the 17 schools with more than $20,000 in fines, 12 serve populations where at least four of five children are African-American or Hispanic and low-income.
Mather High School was one of the rare North Side schools with more than $20,000 in violations. It “was found to have heavy mice droppings throughout including the kitchen and serving line areas,” food services official Jason Mojica emailed his boss, Fowler. “I have asked staff who can stay late today to clean the kitchen areas.”
Mather’s shortcomings angered its principal, Peter Auffant, who emailed Fowler that its “F” rating was “unacceptable” and asked for a meeting the next day to discuss. But no one “from our facilities team showed up” to the meeting including representatives from Aramark and the school’s janitorial company, Mojica emailed Fowler.
“Yes, they were supposed to be there,” she replied.
Auffant told the Sun-Times that his large single-story building has just one custodian “who works really hard” during the day for the entire 1,500-student building, “including the cafeteria for breakfast and 5 lunch periods. The evening crew arrives after the bell but we are a comprehensive neighborhood school serving the community, including the Park District programs, until late in the evening.”
Chavez passed inspection, but its principal also told Fowler that he got no response to emails to his school’s Aramark manager about bathrooms that weren’t cleaned. “This makes two consecutive nights of not cleaning even though the custodian is working,” he wrote. “Can you please let me know the proper process for making sure our facilities are cleaned on schedule?”