Emanuel ‘beyond outraged’ at school conditions; black aldermen call for action

Drake Elementary School, 2710 S. Dearborn St., failed pest and bathroom categories during its Chicago Public Schools "blitz" inspection on December 17, 2017. | Provided photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is “beyond outraged” about “unacceptable” conditions revealed by detailed “blitz” inspections in 125 of the city’s public schools that the Chicago Sun-Times revealed were quietly conducted in response to a school rat infestation.

Several aldermen, including the chairman of the black caucus, are calling for immediate cleaning of the schools found with dirty floors, rodent droppings and smelly bathrooms that parents and teachers have long complained about — as well as answers from Aramark, the private company CPS hired to oversee school cleaning.

And the Chicago Teachers Union called the lack of concrete solutions “inhumane and unacceptable.”

The Chicago Board of Education, whose members are appointed by Emanuel, have approved a slew of contracts since 2014 for Aramark and another private facilities company, and in January approved $427 million more in facilities work in a deal that grants them more responsibility over school facilities. In January, as the CPS blitz inspections were in full swing, Aramark just signed its part of that contract, which CPS refuses to release.

If the violations noted in the blitz reports were flagged by health department inspectors, they’d total more than $1.4 million in fines.

Urban Prep Academy’s Bronzeville Campus failed pest and bathroom categories during its CPS “blitz” inspection on December 12, 2017. The Bronzeville campus, 521 E 35th St, was one of about 125 schools that were inspected after a rat infestation was discovered at Mollison Elementary in Bronzeville. | CPS provided photo.

Asked to respond to the conditions and photos published Wednesday, Emanuel said he was “beyond outraged,” but wouldn’t say what should be done to fix the messes, the worst of which were documented from December through February by inspectors from CPS and Aramark in schools serving low-income children of color.

“It’s unacceptable. Janice knows that, that’s why she’s going to fix it,” he 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.”

Chicago Teachers Union members didn’t know until this week that CPS “rigorously inspected fewer than 20 percent of our students’ schools for cleanliness issues,” vice president Jesse Sharkey said in a statement. “The district also has no plan or strategy in place to address filth and vermin infestations in remaining schools, despite the fact that more than 70 percent of the schools it inspected failed initial inspections. That is inhumane and unacceptable.”

Sharkey also blamed the mayor for privatizing the schools as CPS “at the highest administrative levels, has clearly failed to hold its contractors accountable, instead renewing and expanding these contracts for hundreds of millions of dollars in the last two years alone. This is more than a failure of the contractors, who’ve short-staffed schools and foisted impossible working conditions on janitors and related staff.”

Arnie Rivera, a trusted mayoral ally who inherited the problems when he took over as chief operating officer a month ago, told the Sun-Times on Tuesday that all 91 failing schools have been re-inspected and he’s working on fixes, some of which are being implemented during this week’s spring break.

Several prominent African-American aldermen want more, emphasizing how children need clean, safe places to learn.

Drake Elementary School, 2710 S. Dearborn St., failed pest and bathroom categories during its CPS “blitz” inspection on December 17, 2017. It was one of 125 schools that were inspected after a rat infestation was discover at Mollison Elementary in Bronzeville. | CPS provided photo.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) wants to return custodial control directly to schools as CPS had before 2014 when the school’s custodians answered to its engineer who reported to the principal.

“I think that’s a simple resolution to a lot of what’s going on. When you have somebody you can point to and hold them responsible, that goes a long way” toward providing cleanliness, the chairman of the black caucus said.

“When you had that custodian, when you had that engineer at a school and they took responsibility for what went on at that school, I don’t think we were hearing a whole lot of the problems we’re hearing about now.”

As for Aramark, Sawyer said, “Maybe we need to get them in for a conversation and see what’s going on, but we’ve got to do better.”

Ald. David Moore (17th) said he’s been posting problems in his 17th Ward schools for a year and a half, including the time a mouse ran over his foot while he visited an elementary school around the same time a rat infestation came to light at Mollison Elementary, the school that inspired the blitz inspections after failing two health department inspections.

Drake Elementary School, 2710 S Dearborn St, failed pest and bathroom categories during its CPS “blitz” inspection on December 17, 2017. It was one of 125 schools that were inspected after a rat infestation was discover at Mollison Elementary in Bronzeville. | CPS provided photo.

“I actually had some meetings with Aramark already,” he said. “As you know they subcontracted that out, but it’s not the subcontractor’s fault, it’s Aramark’s fault because they’re not getting enough supplies for the contractor. … It’s a big disgrace. We talked about going private, why, to save money? We’re not saving money, number one, and it’s costing issues with our students and teachers being able to learn effectively, and teachers being able to teach effectively. That’s a greater cost than money.”

An Aramark spokeswoman said the company wasn’t hired in those schools to oversee pest control or other maintenance problems, just to oversee cleaning. She declined to comment when asked for an explanation of the cleaning issues.

Ald. Pat Dowell already took CPS to task over Mollison, which is part of her 3rd Ward.

“I’m very disappointed in the fact that a disproportionate number of those schools seemed to be — not seemed to be — are in African-American and Latino communities. Clearly CPS’ privatization of the janitorial services is not working, and something different needs to be done.”

“Right now they need to clean up the schools,” Dowell said, adding that she has spoken with CPS’ facilities chief, Leslie Fowler. “She has informed me that since they have been finding out about these schools, they have gone back in and have done a lot of cleaning. They spent almost a million dollars since” on cleaning and repairs.

Far South Side Ald. Carrie Austin is upset about the dirty classrooms and lunchrooms but also is concerned that a blanket characterization of schools as “filthy” could further hurt CPS’ flagging enrollment.

“Why do you have to say the school is ‘filthy’? Because filthy is a very harsh word as far as I’m concerned. Are there some of our schools that need much attention? Yes, yes, they are. But to use the language that has been used, it’s disparaging,” she said. “How do we entice people to come to our city if that’s all we say, just disparaging words about our city?”

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