Windy City Revival: How One FM Transformed Chicago’s Public School Facilities

Clarence Carson reorganized the management of facilities in Chicago public schools. The results were a more efficient operation and happier occupants.

Clarence Carson was only acting as an involved parent when his young daughter appointed him PTA treasurer at his small Chicago school. He had no idea Kristina was putting him on a career path he never saw coming.

“I went from treasurer of PTA to director of facilities (CFO) in the third largest school district in the country,” says Carson.

The path was not so easy. But Carson’s experience in building and managing facilities, combined with his successful efforts to lead the necessary upgrades in an aging small school, caught the attention of Chicago Public School (CPS) officials who wanted that he transforms an entire neighborhood as he did for Kristina. school, McDade Classical, in the South District of Chicago.

“I was looking for a rock star, knowing that facilities management was a major vulnerability for the school district,” says Arnie Rivera, then COO at CPS. “Clarence did not apply and had no interest. I looked for it. I don’t think he was in a real rush to do it.

On the radar

CPS was in a bad spot when Rivera was hired as COO in February 2018. The district was receiving tons of bad publicity and its reputation was in tatters.

“Three weeks into my tenure as COO, things exploded,” says Rivera, now director of administration and equity at Navy Pier in Chicago. “(We had) front page stories about school filth, and I was like, we can’t have this. It cannot be a major vulnerability point for our district.

The CFO position at CPS was a revolving door, which didn’t help matters. At least four different people have held the position since 2014, “none of them had experience in facility management,” says Rivera.

This was a great opportunity for Carson, who had a solid background in facilities management, starting with his education at Michigan State University, where he studied construction and facility management, and earned a master’s degree in facility management. construction with a minor in urban renewal planning. After graduating, he worked for years in the private and public sectors, mainly in Chicago.

“It’s not a huge nationwide degree program. It’s pretty rare and I was the only minority, non-white student in my undergrad and the only one of two Americans in my graduate program, ”says Carson, who sits on the board of the alumni council. state for the construction management program and created a mentoring program for African-American students in college. “It’s something I really wanted to do. I followed the progress on campus. I worked at the physical factory as a carpenter and ended up being a project manager, actually managing construction projects on campus. As part of the graduate program, I was a teaching assistant and graduate assistant.

Carson’s involvement in his daughter’s school couldn’t have been more timely. As Rivera settled into his new role, Carson impressed district leaders with the work he did at McDade and two other small CPS schools, where he led renovations to expand schools to teach until in the 8th year from the 6th year. To sell the projects, Carson focused on communication between parents, students, faculty, and staff, and ultimately pushed his proposals through.

“At the time, they told me it could never be done,” Carson says. “I established a quote, design schedule and overall plan, and conducted a survey of all students and staff, administration and nearby community as well as community leaders. I was able to put us all on the same page about how school should work.

The projects have turned heads.

“After the presentation (to Dade), the chairman of the board looked at me and said, ‘Who are you?’ and I just said ‘I’m a dad trying to help school,’ ”Carson says.

All three projects were approved in May 2018, and over the next month CPS set their sights on Carson for a larger role, offering him the role of CFO.

“They said they wanted me to do what I did in these schools, listen to the principals, listen to the teachers, listen to the community and take a thoughtful approach to building management and building improvements, and” we would like you to do this for all of our buildings, ”Carson says.


CPC faces many challenges that public school districts face, such as lack of funding and significant deferred maintenance backlogs. At CPS, deferred maintenance totals reach $ 3.5 billion and many of its buildings are 80 years or older.

In a neighborhood of 600 campuses and 1,300 buildings covering 69 million square feet and serving 355,000 students and 50,000 faculty and staff, changing lanes can take some time.

Carson’s main challenge was to regain control of facilities management, which was outsourced to large vendors in a business model known as the Integrated Facilities Management model.

“One of the main areas that I saw that needed improvement was all of our services in the facilities department,” Carson said. “We ran into several issues where some of our district’s top complaints were with the facilities department, ranging from pest control issues, cleanliness of facilities, response to building repairs, and delays. These are major issues that I was familiar with as a parent in the community. “

After asking district directors about how they thought the facilities department was working, Carson contacted schools near and far to determine what the best approach was. The district has finally adopted a model facilities management office, which will come into full effect in October when existing contracts with suppliers expire.

While CPS will continue to rely on third-party companies for tasks such as cleaning within the district, Carson has expanded the infrastructure within the department, adding directors and managers so that district leaders have more monitoring.

“Based on this model, I was able to change the staffing within our department,” says Carson. “When I first came here, there was mainly a facility manager, an operations manager, and that was it. This naturally did not relate to the key services within our ministry, and it did not create the pillars of leadership in each of these areas. I have reorganized our department and created several new positions to help us be successful.

Carson has added new positions such as directors of environmental safety and directors of energy and sustainability, as well as senior staff in staffing operations, project controls, project management and logistics. .

“We’re going to grow this team, have longer tentacles and provide even more control, more transparency, through direct control over contracts through our departments,” said Carson.

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