The $340 million privatization of the district’s custodial services has led to filthier buildings and fewer custodians, while forcing principals to take time away from instruction to make sure that their school is clean.

That is the finding from a survey done by AAPPLE, the new activist arm of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.

The contract is the first issue the group is taking a hard stance on, hoping that their input will force the district to make some changes. About 230 principals responded to the survey, with most of them saying the number of custodial staff has been reduced and is now inadequate and the cleanliness of their buildings has been negatively affected.

A principal of a South Side school that is comprised of three buildings and more than 1,500 students says she now has just one day custodian, down from three. “The day custodian is running around here like a crazy lady,” says the principal, who did not want to be identified. “And it is filthy.”

In February, the Board of Education approved two three-year contracts—one for $260 million for Aramark and the other for $80 million to Sodexmagic. Aramark was to take over the training, supervision and management of custodians for all but 33 schools. Sodexmagic would handle the job for the other 33 schools.

When Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley presented the proposal to the board, he said the deal would save the district $40 million, lead to cleaner buildings and incorporate state-of-the-art cleaning technology, such as cleaning Zambonis.

Cawley did not say the contract would result in layoffs.

Email acknowledges problems

Though CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey says most schools had a smooth transition to the private vendor, on Monday that vendor, Aramark, sent out an e-mail to principals acknowledging significant problems and asking to meet with them and their staff.  

In the e-mail, shared by a principal, the Aramark official wrote that company officials hear “loud and clear” that “we have not delivered on the promise of making life easier for principals.”

In a white paper, AAPPLE is proposing that the contracts be voided if the buildings are not brought up to Level 2 industry standards for cleanliness, as promised when the contracts were approved. The group also wants CPS to consult them on any contract of more than $500,000 that will impact schools.

McCaffrey says CPS officials are working with contractors to address complaints. “CPS recently contracted with two proven facility management companies to improve cleanliness in all schools while saving millions of dollars that can be redirected to classrooms,” he said in a statement.

Principals say the cleanliness of their buildings is integral to student learning, and note that they are naturally held accountable for it. However, under the new contract, principals do not supervise the custodians at all. Some principals say the custodial managers turn over on a regular basis.

“The person who supervises them comes once a week,” says one principal, who did not want to be identified. “That is just not going to work.”

Bad timing, no new tech

That principal of a Northwest Side school said that at the end of the school year, the custodians assigned to her school left urine in the toilets for weeks. Then, they moved furniture out of a classroom, but broke things when they brought it back in. Her building is more than 100 years old and she says that it is difficult to clean when it gets dirty.

A big complaint of the principals is that staff has been laid off or reassigned at bad times, leaving someone new to take over at crucial moments. One principal said his custodians told him they had been notified that they will be laid off two weeks after school started.

Another had all his custodians sent to new buildings for no apparent reason. “The [ones who were reassigned] were custodians who knew the building, knew the children, knew the community,” he says. “They did not want to leave.”

Two of them were reassigned the Friday before school started. “That is really bad timing,” says the principal, who, like the others, didn’t want to be identified. He says the new custodians are okay, but that he is still waiting on Aramark to let him know their schedules.

The principal also is bothered by the fact that he has seen none of the new technology that was supposed to make the cleaning more efficient.   

One principal from a South Side school that took in children displaced from last year’s closings says she had to get parents, teachers and students to volunteer, in the days leading up to the opening of school, to get her building ready. She says they spent much of the time throwing out an enormous amount of trash, sweeping and mopping.

During the summer, she sent e-mails on a daily basis to her network chief complaining of the problem, but never heard back. One of her biggest complaints concerned the bathrooms, which she says have a bad smell. The custodians tell her it is a drainage problem, but there are no plans to fix it. “Can we just get some air freshener?” she said. “I have kindergarteners going into these bathrooms and they are scary.”

“I feel like this community is already disenfranchised,” she said. “You go up north and you can eat off the floors of the schools. I feel like my community should have that kind of building.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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