Waite: Schenectady councilman’s contract situation worth scrutiny, but work’s larger mission must continue

A man speaks into a microphone, his other hand gesturing

Schenectady City Council member Damonii Farley speaks to the gallery during a city council meeting Monday, inside the City Council Chambers inside city hall.

Article Audio:

WEIGHING IN – During Monday night’s Schenectady City Council meeting, Councilman Damonni Farley publicly addressed recent reporting that shows his consulting firm was accepting sizable contracts from the Schenectady City School District on top of his regular full-time salary as a community outreach specialist for the district. During his remarks, Farley, surprisingly, thanked his political opponents.

“What they did is they opened up a very important point of reflection for me. Sometimes doing the work you’re just doing it and it’s one foot in front of the other,” Farley said, adding: “Leadership is not about having the answers; it is also about having the courage to ask the right questions of yourself and others.”

Farley’s statements were at once about how the controversy helped him rediscover the impact of his work in the community and about seeing the value in questioning the way things get done.

Andrew Waite - Weighing InFor this, we should all be thanking the relatively recent reemergence of political opponents in Schenectady.

The contract issue would likely not have been made public without an active Republican party in Schenectady that is now engaged in full-throated opposition research into the city’s Democratic leadership. Even if Farley comes away totally clean from all of this, the emergence of this contract information is proof that dissent promotes accountability that is healthy for municipal institutions. It makes you wonder how much goes unnoticed when city and other administrations are too long dominated by one party or one faction.

As an illustration of this, consider that no other City Council member nor Mayor Gary McCarthy on Monday addressed the contract issue, which was first reported by multiple news outlets last week. When asked about the issue by our reporter Ted Remsnyder following Monday’s meeting, Council President Marion Porterfield — herself now a mayoral candidate — said it isn’t in the council’s purview.

The Gazette’s reporting shows Farley’s consulting firm, Common Thread, collected more than $580,000 in contracts between 2015 and 2021, even as Farley has been employed with the district full-time since 2016. These contracts came to light following a FOIL request by the city’s Republican party.

The contract arrangement undoubtedly deserves scrutiny.

At the very least, the optics aren’t good. What we have is a school district employee, who made under $67,000 in 2022, heading a private firm that’s receiving contracts that, at their height, brought in nearly twice the amount of Farley’s salary. To be sure, Farley notes his firm divided the contracts among as many as seven contract workers.

While Farley rationalizes the contracts as being for work that is completely outside the scope of his day job and argues that his contract work is akin to a teacher who is also an athletic coach, it seems there was likely some degree of overlap between duties in the job and contract descriptions. Plus, coaches don’t make nearly what Farley’s firm regularly pulled in.

What’s more, Superintendent Anibal Soler, Jr., who was hired by the district in the summer of 2021, decided not to issue a new contract to Common Thread. That means something was amiss with the past contracts, whether it was conflict of interest, poor fiscal management or something else.

Farley’s contracts, in combination with two other contracts not being renewed as a result of procedural issues, indicate just how rickety the district’s financial oversight system appears to have been in the past. After all, the school district has acknowledged that the Board of Education doesn’t appear to have reviewed the contracts.

“About five days after the superintendent arrived in the district, he did a review of all contracts. When he reviewed the Common Thread consultant contract, he realized that the policy for Procurement of Goods and Services had not been followed as it had not gone to the Board of Education for approval,” School District Spokesperson Karen Corona wrote in an email. “That along with many changes that were in process to address needs and the optics of contracting for service with a current employee, led to the superintendent’s decision not to renew the contract.”

Even if Farley’s intent wasn’t nefarious — and, at this point, I’m optimistic that he believed the contract and full-time salary combination was about ensuring important services be provided to the district and its community — the past contract allocation process clearly needs to be examined so future mistakes can be avoided.

But this likely never would have come to light if not for the GOP leaking their FOIL findings. Now, the city’s GOP has submitted the contract issue to the New York State Education Department’s Fraud, Waste, and Abuse reporting system. Hopefully, this will result in an examination by a neutral arbiter that can determine what exactly happened, how it happened, how it continued for so long, and who, if anyone, messed up.

However, even as all of this plays out, it’s important that we not lose sight of what Farley, through his private firm and his full-time school district work, is trying to accomplish. In both roles, the larger goal is to support the community and keep its members engaged with the schools.

That’s critical work and an important mission. Some will argue it’s unnecessary work considering the Schenectady district is struggling academically, with none of the district’s eighth graders demonstrating proficiency in math on recent state tests. They’d argue the district should put all of its efforts into classroom work.

But I’d argue a big part of the district’s academic deficits have to first be addressed in the community. We know how much not having a sense of security or a stable place to live or consistent diet can plunder performance ability.

Farley’s work is aimed at remedying this. He explains his role as a contractor, which started before he was ever hired full-time, is distinct from his full-time duties, first as a family empowerment facilitator for Lincoln Elementary and then in his current role as a community outreach specialist for the entire district. Essentially, Farley said the contract work is about providing student advocacy and conflict resolution, and the full-time job is about supporting parents and reaching out to the community.

I’m not convinced that the duties were entirely separate, and I don’t think the district is either.

“When Anibal [Soler] came on as the new superintendent, the administration and organizational structure of the district changed and new positions were added to address district needs. Therefore, there was no need for external consultants to do this work,” Corona said in an email. “Among the positions that were added are innovation, equity and engagement specialists, parent liaisons, restorative practice specialists and school attendance specialists. These positions are designed to build bridges with families and the community, support and implement our work around equity, diversity and inclusion, address attendance issues, provide multi-systems of support, train and utilize restorative practices, mediation and more.”

But even if I’m not convinced that there was enough daylight between Farley’s contract and full-time roles, I am convinced that the focus of the work is necessary. Many school district parents and other community members are as well, including one father who spoke at Monday night’s City Council meeting to say Farley and his consulting firm’s team basically ensured his daughter could have a safe future in the school district. The family had been contemplating homeschooling after the daughter was bullied and attacked by other students, the father said.

The reality is that the kind of outreach work in which Farley is engaged faces constant threat, too. Unfortunately, it’s easy to see how community involvement benefitting largely BIPOC communities could be the kind of thing that takes fire from the right’s broader “anti-woke” agenda, which seems to target any and all initiatives benefiting communities of color. My worry for Schenectady is that the bad look of Farley’s contracts could ultimately hobble crucial community engagement work overall.

That’s why, even as I remain thankful that political opposition has encouraged all of us to look into a specific contract situation, I’ll be upset if future political attacks harm this work’s larger mission.

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

Categories: Andrew Waite, News, News, Opinion, Opinion, Schenectady, Schenectady County

One Comment

Leave a Reply