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Rahm's privatization of school janitors is still a mess

Teachers file a grievance over filthy schools.

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For the last several months, teachers in Chicago have been doing two jobs for the price of one: instructing kids, and occasionally taking a moment to mop, scrub, or vacuum their dirty classrooms.

The extra duties are the result of a $340 million privatization boondoggle from Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Among other things, it's resulted in the Chicago Public Schools firing hundreds of janitors.

Now teachers at Oriole Park elementary on the northwest side have decided to take matters into their own hands. They've filed a union grievance that, if successful, could force CPS to hire back some of the janitors.

Apparently this is the state of things: to get CPS to clean its schools, teachers have to go all legal on them.

In February 2014 the school board signed a three-year custodial services deal that doled out $260 million to Aramark, one of the largest janitorial companies in the country, and $80 million to SodexoMagic, a joint venture partly owned by Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the former Lakers superstar.

At the time, CPS officials hailed the deal as one of the greatest janitorial breakthroughs since the invention of the mop. As chief operating officer Tim Cawley promised in his PowerPoint presentation, the deal would result in "cleaner schools," "less work for principals," "up to $40 million in savings," and "a world class organization for our world class students."

The school board members got so titillated over the testimony that they unanimously rubber-stamped Cawley's recommendation—as they generally do, whether titillated or not.

Basically, the deal attempts to save money by paying fewer janitors do more janitorial work.

The CPS board needs to save money because (1) it has to pay back hundreds of million of dollars to bankers for convoluted interest-rate swap deals it shouldn't have entered into; (2) it watches close to $250 million a year in property taxes flowing away from the schools and into Mayor Emanuel's tax increment financing program; and (3) it still hasn't figured out a way to get teachers to work for nothing.

Of course, the charter schools are really trying hard on that front.

Well, as everyone has learned, the privatization deal has been a catastrophe on several fronts.

For one thing, the schools are filthy—as teachers, parents, principals, and students have been pointing out all year.

For another, the deal has been the source of a few embarrassing revelations. In March the Tribune noted that a second firm owned by Johnson had donated $250,000 to Emanuel's campaign. And in April, Lauren FitzPatrick of the Sun-Times reported that CPS would have to pay an extra $7 million more to Aramark, thus wiping out a good chunk on the supposed savings, because the board had undercounted the number of schools that Aramark would have to clean.

As all this was going on, the teachers at Oriole Park were saying enough.

"Our custodial staff was cut from three to two," says Erika Wozniak, a third-grade teacher who's Oriole's union rep. "Nothing against the custodians we have—they're doing everything they can. But our school was getting dirtier and dirtier."

In preparation for filing a grievance, the teachers started keeping a diary. It's not the kind where you write about a lovely rose. It's more about having to pick up a bloody paper towel in the washroom, mop up a sick kid's vomit, or empty the garbage.

Things got really bad in the winter, when one of the school's janitors had to shovel. Apparently, the board forgot that in Chicago we have this thing called snow.

In February the teachers filed a union grievance stipulating that they "are performing the daily duties of a custodian," including "sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms and disinfecting play areas."

According to the grievance, school janitors have told teachers "that they are not allowed to spend more than four minutes cleaning in a classroom."

In addition, "the custodians stated they were told that 'if a classroom looks fine they should skip it and go to the next class.'"

On May 7 the Oriole Park teachers got their hearing, which required Wozniak, Chicago Teachers Union field representative Annette Rizzo, and a representative of Aramark to schlep down to the CPS central office.

The good news is that the cutbacks haven't affected the top CPS brass, as Wozniak reports the hearing room was "spotlessly clean."

I'm told the exchange in the hearing went a little like this:

WOZNIAK: We need our third janitor back.

ARAMARK REP: Our formula shows you have more than enough janitors, and if you have any complaints you can call our hotline.

But then, under a withering cross-examination by Rizzo, the Aramark official blurted out, "It's true—I did it!"

Oh, wait—that's from an episode of Perry Mason I caught the other day. So I guess it didn't happen at the hearing.

Ealier this week—just as we were going to press—the hearing officer ruled against Wozniak on the grounds that "there was no evidence" that Aramark or the board "were contacted and made aware of the issues at Oriole" before the grievance was filed. Had they been aware, they'd have cleaned it up pronto, the ruling concludes.

Just so you know, the ruling is not exactly a big surprise.

That's because, as is usually the case, the first-round hearing officer was a board employee who's as likely to vote against the district as Mayor Emanuel is to start for Magic's Lakers next year.

Here's my money-saving suggestion. For future union grievances, skip this first step and go straight to an arbitrator. Then you can spend the money you save to hire more janitors.

Wozniak and the union can appeal. But they'd probably have to go all the way to the Supreme Court before Mayor Emanuel or his board admits that firing those janitors was a bad idea.  v

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