Schools Need Custodians Who Care, Not Outsourced Companies that Don't

Gus Lira has been Cherry Preschool’s custodian for most of its 25-year existence. In my years as Executive Director, he came to our rescue time after time. If something broke, we could just call him at his day job. If teachers made a huge glitter mess, they would leave him a note apologizing in advance (ever try to clean up that stuff?). Gus never complained. The kids left him love notes thanking him for getting marker off the walls, glue off the tables, or playdoh out of the carpet.

Photo by Mellierene4 via Flickr

Photo by Mellierene4 via Flickr

My point is that we knew Gus and he knew us. He took pride in keeping the school clean. We could count on him to finish every little project on our summer to-do lists. He often arrived just before I left for the day. We would laugh about some of the things the kids had created because they were so cute. And sometimes, we shared a treat left over from a school event. The main thing I remember Gus saying was “no problem.” And he meant it. We worked on the same team and communicated directly about what needed to be done.

When I read the watchdog column in the Chicago Sun Times about Chicago Public Schools (CPS) failing a recent blitz inspection of school cleanliness, I was not surprised. In a post I wrote three years ago, I questioned the wisdom of CPS privatizing custodial services. CPS awarded huge contracts to SodexoMAGIC, a company owned by former basketball superstar Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who made major contributions to Mayor Emanuel’s campaign. Last May, the Chicago Board of Education doubled the size of that contract and paid $28.5 million for services in 2016-17.

The other private contractor hired by the Chicago Board of Education, Aramark, was paid $152 million for its services last school year. This is the private contractor responsible for the filth discovered in the blitz inspection of schools that are its responsibility. Rat droppings, insects, dirty floors, expired food in refrigerators, foul-smelling bathrooms lacking supplies, piles of garbage, and infested food prep areas were found in many schools. Not surprisingly, most of these schools serve poor children of color. Shame.

I guess this is just another example of how large private for-profits are replacing the independent workers. Yes, they have access to bigger machines, but do they really get things cleaner? Do they care at all about the children and teachers who use the schools they service?

Back in September, 2014, an article in Huffington Post by Joseph Erbentraut noted that CPS’s use of Aramark, resulted in bugs, lack of toilet paper, overflowing trash, leaking ceilings, and overall unsanitary conditions. For the past four school years, nothing has changed. Children and teachers have had to put up with disgusting and unhealthy environments. That’s a powerful message about how we value them, a sad lesson the kids who attend these schools learn every day.

The decision to outsource school custodial work resulted in many custodians being removed from the schools where they had worked for years. Some were assigned to a floating pool of janitors. Some were simply laid off. Principals were promised this new private arrangement would result in faster responses to problems, cleaner schools, and lower costs. I wonder how well that decision worked out for the principals, teachers, and most of all, for the kids who now go to even dirtier schools lacking basic supplies like toilet paper or towels to dry their hands?

When my grandchildren attended our local public school, they regarded Mr. Jones, the head custodian, with the same respect as the rest of the staff there. He was part of the team. They knew he would be there before an event to be sure everything was in place and after the event to put things back where they belonged. I knew if one of them forgot a jacket or book or lunch box, I could ring the bell after the building was closed and he would be there to help me find it.

Several years ago, Mr. Jones saw me on the playground toting a heavy bag while waiting for one of my grandkids. He knew who I was and showed me with pride where he had just installed a bench nearby. “Have a seat with me for a minute,” he said. He could see I was tired and we made small talk for a bit. What a nice man. If the CPS model for school maintenance comes to Evanston, who will notice a woman who needs to sit for a moment? Who will answer the doorbell to help find a child’s jacket? No one.

Magic Johnson was a great basketball player, a great spokesperson for AIDS, and apparently is a now great businessman. But I can’t help wondering what he and the CEO of Aramark know about how important school custodians are to the team that keeps a school running well. Or if they even get the concept that it’s the school community – children, teachers, administrators, staff, parents, and even custodians – that make things work.

Custodian has many meanings, including guardian, protector, steward, and especially caretaker. I fear people like Gus Lira and Mr. Johnson, custodians who know the school staff and families, care about the needs of the children, and take pride in keeping schools clean, may give way to for-profit custodial companies. But here’s the thing. You can’t outsource their kind of service. Please leave the folks who care about our schools and their occupants in charge of their upkeep.

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