Principals and district officials have been at odds over whether privatized custodial services have provided adequate cleaning in schools. Credit: Photo courtesty of Shutterstock

Most principals responding to a survey say they still think their schools are not being cleaned well enough by privatized custodial services, but CPS officials say that an independent audit found virtually all campuses are at “ordinary tidiness”–the level aspired to.

The survey by the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association is the latest round in the ongoing discord between many principals and CPS leaders about the custodial services managed since last year by Aramark and SodexoMAGIC. Association President Clarice Berry is now calling on the contract to be voided, as have some outspoken principals in the past. About 260 principals of 522 at district-run schools responded.

“It has been an utter catastrophe,” Berry said at a press conference, where she also called for the contract with the two companies to be voided.

The survey found that more than 90 percent of principals say they and their local school councils think the school was cleaner before Aramark and SodexoMAGIC took over. They also say they are not satisfied with the equipment the two companies have provided. In addition, more than 90 percent reported that dealing with the companies’ staff consumes time that they otherwise would use to focus on instructional issues.

CPS, however, points to an independent audit of some 300 schools that found the vast majority of them were at a Level 2, scoring at least 80 points on a 100-point scale, according to CPS. The definition of Level 2: Clean floors with no more than two days’ worth of dust or dirt;  no noticeable fingerprints or marks on walls or desks; washrooms clean and odor free; and trash containers that have only a day’s-worth of garbage inside.

Last year, before the contracts were awarded, the average was 78 on the 100 point scale. In a statement, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett characterized the schools as “significantly cleaner.”

“After a bumpy transition, they (officials from Aramark and SodexoMAGIC) met with principals, worked collaboratively to address their concerns and adjusted staffing to meet the needs of our schools,” Byrd-Bennett said.

Catalyst Chicago had previously submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the audit, but only received the information on Thursday following the principals’ association press conference.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey says district leaders had no idea that principals were still concerned about conditions in their buildings.

Offered up by CPS as a principal who would vouch for Aramark, Agassiz Principal Mira Weber said she could not speak to the cleanliness of her building. However, she has been impressed by the responsiveness of the site manager. “There were some hiccups early on, but there has definitely been an improvement,” she says.

$340 million contracts

Last March, Aramark was given a three-year contract for $260 million to provide custodial services for most schools and SodexoMAGIC was given an $80 million contract to provide all facilities management, including custodial and engineering services, at about 30 schools. CPS leaders said that the private companies will save CPS some $40 million a year by centralizing purchasing of supplies and buying new equipment that would allow them to lay off staff but also keep the schools cleaner.

Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley promised spiffy Zambonis would replace mops and the private companies would be super-responsive to principals, as quick as Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches, a chain restaurant whose motto is “freaky fast delivery.”

But over the summer, principals voiced concerns that the schools were filthy and that too few staff were being provided to adequately do the job. They also were frustrated that they no longer were responsible for supervising the cleaning and engineering staff. They said Aramark and SodexoMAGIC  added a layer of bureaucracy.

After a torrent of principal complaints convinced them that there was an issue, CPS leaders and Mayor Rahm Emanuel said they were addressing concerns and, if schools weren’t brought up to par, the companies would be penalized.

In addition to the survey results, the principal’s association released comments from 121 principals, many of whom call the Aramark and SodexoMAGIC take over a “disaster.” “My school is filthy,” one comments. “I have met with people over 10 times regarding this issue.”

Another commented: “Thanks to Aramark, our school is in a state of health, safety and sanitation crisis.”

Berry says that three or four small schools reported that they thought SodexoMAGIC was doing a good job. But she says the survey proves that the majority are not happy. She noted that the association doesn’t usually have press conferences and instead airs their complaints at meetings with CPS administrators twice a month. But she said the association released the survey because they feel as though CPS leaders are not taking the complaints of the principals seriously. “We are being ignored,” she said.

Jennie Biggs, a parent representing the advocacy group Raise Your Hand, says one problem is that the Zamboni can’t be carried up the four flights of stairs at her children’s school, Sheridan Math and Science Academy. Therefore, it is not used. Given that mops have been banned, the custodian use Swiffer wet-jet type contraptions, she says.

She adds that the custodians don’t see wiping down desks as part of their jobs, so the children and students do it. “We have quite a nice collection of wipes with black handprints,” she says.

Another complaint is that the supplies that Aramark is buying are sub-par or not replenished enough.

While Berry focused on the custodian contract at the press conference, the survey also asked principals about their opinions on student-based budgeting, the accountability system and whether they feel as though they are on a level playing field as charters. According to the survey, many principals feel the accountability system is unfair and that district testing requirements “have negatively impacted instructional time.” Also, few think they are dealt with fairly compared with charter schools.

Student-based budgeting received split reviews.

Photo: Janitor cleaning/Shutterstock

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Sarah Karp

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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