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Custodial contract causing problems at start of school year

Principals and teachers are reporting a school year starting off with dirty classrooms, property damage, theft, and poor communication.

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It’s one of those jobs that you don’t really notice, until it’s not done.

Dave Belanger knows firsthand. He once worked as a part-time, fill-in janitor for extra income early in his teaching career.

“I’ve scrubbed toilets and washed bathrooms and cleaned classrooms and I know if you don’t keep on top of that every single day, it just quadruples,” Belanger said. “A school that could start out clean on Monday by Friday, if things haven’t been done, is really almost a pig sty.”

Dave Belanger is now the principal of Hanson Park Elementary School in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood on the city’s Northwest side. He said, this year, the deep clean that usually takes place in schools over the summer was “the scariest and least efficient” process he has seen over the 14 years he’s worked for CPS.

“Many teachers spent a half a day to a day, last week, before kids came in, scrubbing their classrooms, tops of bookcases, window sills, walls, baseboards, things that would normally be cleaned were not cleaned,” Belanger said.

Belanger is just one of more than 230 principals recently surveyed by the Administrators Alliance for Proven Policy and Legislation in Education, or AAPPLE, a member-driven arm of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. The results reveal problems across Chicago Public Schools—dirty classrooms, damaged materials, theft and an overall lack of communication.

Shifting control of custodians

How CPS got to this point is complicated. For years, custodians fell under the oversight of each school’s building engineer. That changed a few years ago, when budget officials centralized the building engineers and put custodians under principals. CPS had previously subcontracted with private cleaning services, like We Clean and Total Facilities.

Then this past spring, the Chicago Board of Education awarded a $260 million contract to a company called Aramark to oversee nearly all 2,400-plus janitors in the school system. Another private company—SodexoMAGIC—was awarded an $80 million contract to oversee 33 schools.

Under the contract, private custodial manaagers have been assigned to oversee groups of 15 to 20 schools, according to Leslie Norgren, the district’s director of asset management.

At the board meeting, Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley talked up the privatization deal to board members, saying Aramark and SodexoMAGIC would be “like Jimmy John’s,” so when a principal called with a need for say, paper towels, “the guy is showing up with more paper towels before the principal hangs up the phone.”

The private companies now oversee subcontractors that employ thousands of custodians as well as 825 board-funded custodians that are unionized and covered under a contract negotiated by the Service Employees International Union Local 73. SEIU Local 73 did not respond to requests for comment about how the change to Aramark has affected its members.

Communication problems and more ‘red tape’

District officials promised the new contract would not only save money, but would also lead to cleaner schools and give principals more time to focus on teaching and learning.

But that hasn’t happened. Teresa Chrobak- Prince, principal of Hearst Elementary on the Southwest Side, said because “nobody knows who’s directing who,” the responsibility falls back into the principal’s lap.

When WBEZ spoke with Chrobak- Prince at the end of the first day of school last week, she still didn’t know who her Aramark custodial manager was. She also said the new contract has created more red tape.

“For something as simple as making sure the air-conditioning is regulated, you have to make ten phone calls and send five emails before anything gets done,” she said. “You can’t just simply go to your engineer and say I need this done because then they have this whole new system and they have to put it in the computer and they have to call their FM and they have to get it approved, and then we have to get three quotes.”

Norgren of CPS said “that should not be happening.”

“[Principals] should feel very comfortable directing the custodian that that garbage can needs to be dumped,” Norgren said. “It shouldn’t be this process where they’re running it up the flagpole.”

Norgren says Aramark officials will be meeting with individual principals in the coming weeks to address any problems.

Fewer custodians, cleaner schools?

CPS officials insist overall cleanliness of schools remains the same, despite reports indicating otherwise and an overall reduction in the custodial workforce.

Of those who took the principal survey, 87 percent reported at least one janitor being cut. Additionally, WBEZ spoke with more than a dozen people at schools across the city and nearly all say their school has fewer custodians.

“As of right now, we have six night custodians, when we used to have ten and only two daytime custodians,” said Carolyn Brown, a teacher and parent at Kelly High School. She says at least one of the bathrooms in the school is now only being cleaned once a week.

“My daughter actually goes to school here and it makes me, the parent in me, cringe at the idea of her going into a bathroom that’s only cleaned once a week when we have thousands of people come through this building,” Brown added.

Jonathan Zielinski, a teacher at Drummond Montessori in Bucktown, said the school used to have four custodians, one for each floor of the building. They now have two.

One of them has been at Drummond for more than 20 years and is being reassigned to another school, where he’ll take the place of three custodians that were cut over the summer.

“He’s not losing his job, but he’s losing his family, his community,” Zielinski told WBEZ. He added that for a school like Drummond, where the Montessori curriculum requires students to work in very specifically prepared environments, a clean, neat classroom is important. The custodians, like the one being reassigned, play an important role.

“He knows everybody in this building too,” Zielinski said. “A stranger walks into this building, [he] will recognize a face or not recognize a face. If I saw somebody who I didn’t recognize in the building, I would ask [him] if he knew who they were, because he is here every day, every moment.”

And the reassignments are just the beginning. Norgren confirmed that roughly 475 custodians will be let go by the end of September. None of the 825 custodial positions covered by SEIU Local 73 will be cut, Norgren said. Many of those positions, like the one at Drummond, have been shifted as a result of the layoffs.

Two and a half of those positions will be cut from Dave Belanger’s school, Hanson Park.

“I don’t see how it would be physically possible for three and a half custodians to clean the campus we have,” he said.

That campus includes four buildings with a total of 65 classrooms.

Becky Vevea is a producer and reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.

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