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Magic Johnson, Mayor Emanuel, and School Custodians

Not easy to get playdough out of rugs

Published in ChicagoNow, March 23, 2015

Gus Lira has been Cherry Preschool’s custodian for most of its 23-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 playdough out of the carpet.

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. Recently, I read about how Magic Johnson donated big bucks to Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral campaign as a thank you. It seems that one of Johnson’s companies, SodexoMAGIC, received an $80 million custodial and facilities management contract for Chicago Public Schools (CPS). This made me angry on behalf of all of the men and women like Gus who are our school custodians.

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?

In September, 2014, an article in Huffington Post by Joseph Erbentraut noted that CPS’s use of a private custodial service, Aramark, resulted in bugs, lack of toilet paper, overflowing trash, leaking ceilings, and overall unsanitary conditions. In addition to poorer service, this decision to outsource school custodial work resulted in many school 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. Right.

Aramark received a three-year, $260 million contract that would supposedly save the cash-strapped CPS $40 million to $54 million over its life. Magic Johnson’s SodexoMAGIC recently received an $80 million contract as a pilot program for outsourcing all CPS maintenance work. Wonder how well that will work out for the principals, teachers, and most of all, for the kids who will no doubt go to even dirtier schools lacking basic supplies like toilet paper or towels to dry their hands?

I have no doubt this is where things are headed. People like Gus Lira, who know the school staff and families, care about the needs of the children, and take pride in keeping schools clean are a dying breed.

My grandchildren, who attend my local public school, regard Mr. Jones, the school custodian, with the same respect as the rest of the staff there. He is part of the team. They know he will be there before an event to be sure everything is in place and after the event to put things back where they belong. I know if one of them forgets a jacket or book or lunch box, I can ring the bell after the building is closed and he will be there to help me find it.

A couple of 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. When 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 Mayor Emanuel 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.

Political favors and large maintenance companies will not keep our school environments clean and healthy for our kids. Maybe Magic Johnson should stick to sports and raising AIDS awareness, and Mayor Emanuel should focus on governing the City of Chicago. Custodian has many meanings, including guardian, protector, steward, and especially caretaker. Just leave the folks who care about our schools and their occupants in charge of their upkeep.


by Laurie Levy
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