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Chicago school cleaning contract millions over budget

The promise of cleaner schools at a lower price has turned out to be just that -- a promise.

Chicago Public Schools’ three-year contract with Philadelphia-based Aramark to manage all school cleaning services is $22 million over budget, according to procurement and finance records obtained by WBEZ.

Aramark has billed Chicago Public Schools $86 million for the first 11 months of its three-year contract. The first year price tag was initially set at $64 million.

“That’s pretty astonishing,” said Dave Belanger, principal of Hanson Park Elementary in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood. “If you have a signed contract that says ‘X’ numbers of dollars, that’s what it should be and it should be up to Aramark to absorb those other costs.”

CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley denied the contract was over budget.

“No, we know we’re saving money now,” Cawley said. “There’s no question about that.”

District officials said they may not end up paying some of the bills owed to Aramark. Still, records show, the payments made through the end of December that have been officially closed out total $71 million.

Cawley admitted the contract is more than the district initially thought because Aramark did not end up laying off 468 janitors, as had been planned. After complaints about cleanliness, the company kept 178 on the job for the rest of the school year and allowed another 290 to work through the end of October. That cost $7.4 million extra, CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said.

CPS officials also forgot about entire buildings when they calculated the square footage of the district’s more than 600 schools. The mistake added another $7 million, McCaffrey said.

Hanson Park was one such school with missing square footage, Belanger said.

“I know initially Aramark said they’d be able to clean our three buildings—the branch building, the module and this main building, which is just a sprawling giant—they’d be able to clean it with three and a half employees, which is just not realistic in any way, shape or form,” he said.

Hanson Park ended up getting six janitors for the rest of the school year.

Karen Cutler, a spokeswoman for Aramark, said the company also billed CPS for fill-in work done by Aramark janitors when the board failed to hire 100 of the 825 custodial positions it promised to provide. McCaffrey said that cost $4.5 million extra. 

Both Cutler and Cawley said they still anticipate $12 million in savings in the second and third year of the contract.

But Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, is hoping there won’t be a second and third year.

“Aramark and Sodexo should pack their bags because they need to leave town,” she said. “There is no way we’re not going to continue to fight this.”    

Big contract, broken promises

CPS has had privatized janitors for more than a decade – but last April, the Board of Education awarded contracts worth a total of $340 million to two companies—Aramark and Sodexo MAGIC—to manage all of the cleaning services at more than 600 schools. Aramark secured a three-year deal, not to exceed $260 million, according to board reports.

At the time, Cawley said the new system would be like “Jimmy John’s," the sandwich chain that uses the tagline “Freaky Fast Delivery”. Instead of assigning a janitor to deal with an issue, principals would call a hotline and the problem would be taken care of immediately.

“Like, the guy is showing up before the principal hangs up the phone,” he said.

That did not happen.

Principals complained of disorganization and a lack of responsiveness from Aramark employees assigned to manage their schools. Many school janitors were reassigned or laid off. The annual summer cleaning blitz left many teachers and principals scrambling to re-clean classrooms and hallways ahead of the first day of school.

The Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, the Chicago Teachers Union and the parent group Raise Your Hand surveyed their memberships and found overwhelming dissatisfaction with the level of cleanliness.

Cawley was grilled by Board of Education members shortly after the controversy came to light. He told board members there were three reasons to outsource the management of janitors to Aramark and SodexoMAGIC.

“Number one was to have cleaner schools,” he said. “Number two was to realize savings and number three was to actually simplify life for principals.”

At the time, Cawley admitted Aramark wasn’t delivering on two of those, but he went on to insist the savings were there.

“We know we’ve realized the savings and in fact, we’ve already reinvested that in more student based budgeting on a per pupil basis,” he said. “But we don’t think we’ve been successful on getting enough schools cleaner. Nor have we been successful in making life easier for principals.”

Budget documents released in August of last year claim the Aramark deal would save $18 million this school year, meaning the total cost of cleaning before the outsourcing was around $82 million. That’s $4 million less than what CPS is now being billed for.

Cutting ties unlikely

In March, the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association called on the board to end the custodial contract. The call came after 90 percent of principals surveyed by the group said their schools were still dirtier that last year.

“There is no negotiating with us anymore,” CPAA's Berry said at the time. “We’re not listening to any more promises. We’re not waiting anymore. You can not staff a school with 1,200 kids with two custodian workers and think it’s going to work. Ever.” 

A few weeks later, at the March Board of Education meeting, janitors with the Service Employees International Union Local 1 protested against any future layoffs outside CPS headquarters. Tom Balanoff, president of the SEIU Local 1, cautioned that Aramark should not reduce staffing any further or else schools will be dangeriously unclean.

That same day, CPS released the results of an independent audit, conducted by a group called Premier Facilities Solutions, that showed all but a dozen schools met the industry standard for cleanliness outlined in Aramark’s contract.

Cawley said he is still “very confident” that Aramark has delivered cleaner schools at a lower price.  

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

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the cost of fill-in work. It was $4.5 million, according to CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey.

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