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Aramark’s Sanitation, Safety Standards Questioned at Chicago Board of Education Meeting

Buses
Buses line the streets outside Mark Sheridan Math and Science Academy in Bridgeport waiting to take children home from school. Photo by Thomas Kremer.
Sign
Welcome sign at Sheridan Elementary in the newly created garden. Children in grades K-5 plant themed gardens and harvest the crops at the end of the season. Photo by Thomas Kremer.
Van
An Aramark van leaves Sheridan Elementary after a meeting with John O’Connell, principal at Sheridan. CPS Chief Administrative Officer, Tim Crawley, said Wednesday CPS principals would begin meeting with Aramark custodial managers to work out problems with sanitation in the schools. Photo by Thomas Kremer.

A child got sick during class and vomited on the classroom carpet. No big deal, right? These things happen.

The teacher put in a request with the school’s custodian—who has been contracted out by Chicago Public Schools to a private company, Aramark—to get the mess cleaned up.

However, the vomit-crusted carpet was left to sit over the weekend, said Jennie Biggs, a parent of three children at Mark Sheridan Math and Science Academy and a parent rep on its local school council.

Biggs shared this story Wednesday with the Chicago Board of Education; she was one of several people who complained about the recent privatization of CPS’ janitors. Quoting a fellow parent’s concern, she told board members: “How does CPS expect our kids to have good attendance if they don’t rid the school of the germs that fester after a bout of a stomach incident? That is an outbreak waiting to happen.”

Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, was emphatic in her plea for board members to correct what she described as an unsatisfactory relationship between CPS employees and Aramark-contracted custodians.

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“No principal, teacher, paraprofessional or student should be made to supervise, teach, provide services or learn inside a dirty school,” Clarice Berry said.

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CPS signed a three-year-contract with Aramark in March worth $260 million. SudexoMAGIC was also granted a contract for facility upkeep worth $80 million. The contracts are speculated to save CPS between $40 million and $54 million, according to a report on DNA info Chicago.

Biggs also questioned how safe buildings are with new and unknown people working as custodians.

“How are keys to buildings controlled and accounted for once the school must hand them over to an Aramark employee?” Biggs asked during the CBE meeting. “It is not safe for our kids and our staff to have rotating custodians, and it is certainly not safe to not know who is in our buildings at all times.”

Sheridan Principal John O’Connell said Friday he had made requests to keep the same custodial staff the school had before the change in May. Only one member out of the three from last year remains from that group, and that person may be let go by Oct. 1 because of layoffs of an estimated 480 custodial positions by Aramark.

The rotation of custodial staff without the principals’ knowledge or consent has some wondering who has access to schools and how that access is monitored.

At Sheridan, custodians are required to swipe timecards when they come and go. But O’Connell said those records are kept by Aramark and not available to him. A representative from Aramark was not able to be reached for comment.

While conceding there have been some problems, Tim Cawley, chief administrative officer for CPS, said “the vast, vast majority of schools were as clean or cleaner” than they were last school year, but he acknowledged the custodians’ performance wasn’t quite up to par yet in all schools.

“We don’t think we’ve been successful in getting enough schools cleaner, nor have we been successful in simplifying life for the principals,” Cawley said. “Right now, throughout the district, every single principal is sitting down with an Aramark custodial manager, our own facilities manager, their engineer, their custodial team and laying out what the challenges are and a plan to fix those [challenges].”

Crawley said “at least 99 percent” of Aramark’s custodians are people who’ve previously worked in the CPS system, and all custodial staff must pass the same background check that any other CPS employee undergoes.

Board President David Vitale said he has been personally engaged in discussions and downplayed the concerns, saying “we should not exaggerate the situation.”

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