PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As Providence grapples with aging school buildings and complaints about mice and general filth, city leaders say they are calling on the custodial company Aramark to step it up.
Aramark, a publicly traded company, has been paid tens of millions of dollars over the years to clean and maintain Providence schools. The company has had the custodial contract since 2005, according to its most recent bid documents.
“Some of the conditions that we’ve had are just unacceptable,” Democratic Mayor Jorge Elorza said in an interview on Thursday. “We pay a lot of money for these services, and we expect these services to be done at the highest quality and the highest standard.”
The spotlight has been on the conditions of the Providence school buildings after the Johns Hopkins report was released in June, detailing disgusting conditions and aging infrastructure. The city has been working on $20 million in infrastructure projects this summer, in addition to the regular cleaning and maintenance done by Aramark.
Elorza said the city had been speaking with Aramark about improving even before School Board President Nick Hemond and Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro notified the mayor’s office about issues of mice and dirty conditions inside the Anthony Carnevale Elementary School on Wednesday.
“I was quite upset with what I perceived to be a lack of attention to detail from Aramark in that school,” Hemond said. “I just don’t think that’s an environment that’s right for kids.”
“They’re going to be held accountable for this,” Elorza said. “They’ve been partners with us for a long time, but ‘good’ isn’t good enough going forward.”
At one time the city had its own custodians, but it’s been at least 20 years since Providence started contracting out those services, according to Elorza’s press secretary Victor Morente.
Morente said the original contractor was Sodexo Marriott Services, now known as just Sodexo. That company still handles food service for the city’s schools, but Aramark took over the custodial services in 2005.
The school custodial contract most recently went back out to bid in 2014. Aramark was the low bidder, promising to do the job for $16.3 million in the first year. Two other companies — GCA and Sodexo — submitted higher bids and didn’t get the contract.
Aramark’s five-year contract would have ended this year, but the Board of Contract and Supply and the City Council approved a four-year extension last year, extending the contract to clean the schools through 2023. The contract did not go out to bid again, since the option of an extension was written into the original 2014 contract.
The contract’s value has climbed each year based on the consumer price index, bringing it to nearly $18.5 million for the upcoming school year. That figure includes an additional $900,000 for “supplemental services,” according to meeting minutes from the Board of Contract and Supply this past June.
The company has been cleaning the schools in preparation for the new school year, which includes waxing the floors and painting.
“If they breach the contract, if they don’t uphold those standards, then they’re going to be held accountable.” Elorza said. “And if they breach it, then we’ll take them to court and make sure that we get someone else in that does perform as they’re supposed to.”
A corporate spokesperson for Aramark, Karen Cutler, said the company has more than 200 “dedicated maintenance professionals” in Providence, including those who send their own children to Providence schools.
“The unfortunate reality is that most schools are facing major infrastructure issues as a result of decades of deferred maintenance,” Cutler said. “Despite these challenges, we work to keep these buildings clean, safe and comfortable. Going forward, we are focused on ensuring that Providence school buildings are ready for the opening of the 2019-2020 school year on Sept. 3.”
A teacher at DelSesto Middle School approached a reporter on Thursday during a tour with Elorza and new interim superintendent Frances Gallo.
Renee Morris, who said she is a teaching assistant in the Extended School Year program, told Target 12 the school had frequent problems with cleanliness and she had seen roaches and rats in the building.
Just the day before, she said, a student had urinated on the floor. She claimed staff had to call the custodian three times, because no one had arrived to clean it up.
Aramark denied that version of events. Cutler wrote in an email, “On July 31st we received a call from a teacher reporting an incident on the first floor of DelSesto Middle School and requested a clean-up. Shortly after receiving this report, a custodian responded and thoroughly cleaned the area. The floor was cleaned to the satisfaction of the teacher in the room.”
Morris said she only works at DelSesto in the summer, and spends the rest of the year at Mount Pleasant High School.
“There are obviously rodents there,” Morris said.
Gallo said the school department was working to get all rodents out of the schools by the start of the year. She said workers were closing up crevices and gaps to the outside that let the pests in.
Lt. Gov. Dan McKee addressed the custodial issues in an interview with Dan Yorke on WPRO radio on Thursday. He said Providence, which spends about $4 per square foot on custodial services, was well above average, according to a report by the Council of Great City Schools.
The council, a coalition of 75 urban school districts that includes Providence, places the median cost of custodial services per square foot at $1.59, less than half the amount Providence pays.
“If you’re investing a great deal of money in normal maintenance, normal upkeep, you would expect a lot better outcomes than some other schools that are paying significantly less,” McKee said.
Elorza said because the decision to contract out custodial services pre-dates him by many years, he doesn’t know if the job was done better by in-house custodians.
“All I’m concerned about is making sure that schools are ready for opening on September 3rd,” Elorza said. “And everyone, Aramark included, knows that they’re going to be held to the highest standard.”