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School board takes on cleanliness controversy

The controversy over cleanliness in Chicago Public Schools seems to be hitting a nerve with members of the Chicago Board of Education.

It could have been fiery comments from the head of the principals association, or a disturbing account from a primary school teacher, read by a parent during public participation at Wednesday’s monthly meeting. It claimed vomit was left to sit on her floor for 30 minutes before it was cleaned up and then crusted into her rug over the weekend.

The parent who read the comment, Jennie Biggs, has three children at Sheridan Elementary in Bridgeport and is also part of a parent group called Raise Your Hand. That group released the results of an informal survey they did over the last week, which got 162 responses across 60 schools.

The complaints come on the heels of similar surveys and complaints from principals and teachers that WBEZ first reported earlier this month.

Board member Andrea Zopp said CPS and the two private companies now overseeing the management of custodians should take a close look at the parent’s survey.

“And in particular, look at the some of the comments,” Zopp said. “You can take (them) with a grain of salt, but there are some very disturbing things in there sent from people who apparently are on the ground.”

CPS has had privatized cleaning services for more than a decade, but last February, the Board voted to award two contracts worth a total $340 million to Aramark and SodexoMAGIC to manage all 2,500 janitors in the school system.

At the time of that vote, CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley said move would make principals’ lives easier, explaining that the companies would be like “Jimmy John’s,” getting more supplies and cleaning up spills before principals could even hang up the phone.

On Wednesday, Cawley defended the move to privatize the management of custodians.

“We think the vast, vast majority of our schools are as clean or cleaner than they’ve been in the past,” Cawley said Wednesday. “That’s how they started the school year and that’s how they’re operating now.”

And he insisted the district is saving money. “But never, ever, would we compromise the safety or cleanliness of our schools to accomplish those savings,” he added.

Still, Board members had a lot of questions about how the new system is supposed to work.

“So as a principal, three or four teachers come to me on a particular morning, my room is not clean, this is not working right, … the principal wants to resolve the issue, what’s the next step?” asked Carlos Azcoitia, one of the board members who served as a principal for 9 years.

Cawley said they can call a new hotline number or the cell phone of their Aramark custodial manager.

But Clarice Berry, head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, said that makes no sense.

“We do not need, we do not want middle managers between the principals and the staff assigned to their schools,” Berry said. She also called out Azcoitia and the other former principal on the board, Mahalia Hines, for allowing this to happen.

But later in the meeting, Hines said the old system didn’t work either.

“If [janitors] didn’t clean or didn’t do their work, I had little or no control over that, because they were with the union and you had to go through a long process, and either they would out wait me or they’d die it out,” Hines said.

Cawley said both companies are working at their own expense to fix the problems.

Aramark spokeswoman Karen Cutler confirmed they’ve added extra support above and beyond the terms of the contract.

“We have been meeting with every principal in the district – over 300 to date – to address their concerns, as well as review our program, which we have in place at hundreds of school districts across the country,” Cutler wrote in an e-mail to WBEZ. “We brought in additional managers (at our expense) to assist with the transition and have been training all CPS custodial staff on new equipment, using more efficient, environmentally friendly cleaning techniques.”

One question that did not get answered at Wednesday’s meeting is what will happen when additional layoffs go into effect.

As it stands right now, 468 fewer janitors will be in the schools come Tuesday.  

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

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