Waite: Spring’s administration could be a drag on new leadership’s ‘#SchenectadyRising’ mantra

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This should have been expected.

No, we may not have been able to predict the details or the fact that Schenectady City Council member and Schenectady City School District employee Damonni Farley would be the one at the center of the controversy, but nothing about the fraught contract arrangement that recently came to light should surprise anyone.

That’s because this troubling situation is the kind of residue that accumulates when no one is minding the store.

And in the Schenectady school district, that’s exactly what was happening under the leadership of former Superintendent Larry Spring, who resigned in March of 2020 amid a cloud of scandal — including allegations of sexual harassment, which he refutes.

A Capital Region BOCES report, which came out in February of 2021 and was commissioned by the district’s school board, now seems almost prophetic in its descriptions of the district’s abysmal operations.

At the time the report was issued, Shannon Tahoe — who helped conduct interviews for the BOCES report and who previously served as interim state education commissioner — noted “a deep fear and trust issue” in the district.

“It’s longstanding, you can feel it when you are in the room,” Tahoe said, according to Daily Gazette reporting at the time. “I can say it is something that’s really controlling all of what is going on in the district.”

As a result of the climate, staff were afraid to make decisions and felt everything must be brought to the highest level, Tahoe said.

That, of course, meant all roads ultimately led to Spring.

With Spring being the kind of upstanding, transparent leader we now know him to be, you’d expect nothing but accountability and the cleanest record of fiscal responsibility. Yeah, right.

If there was any doubt about systemic flaws hurting the way business was done, the BOCES report even recommended strengthening the district’s human resources department, establishing employee relations and internal communications positions and implementing an intranet — an internal staff network to house documents, communications and other resources for employees.

Farley’s contracts illustrate just how little was being communicated. Farley’s consulting firm, Common Thread, made more than $580,000 in contracts between 2015 and 2021 — including more than $120,000 during two separate school years. This contract income, which the current Superintendent Anibal Soler, Jr., halted as soon as he arrived in the district in July 2021, came on top of Farley’s full-time school district annual salary, which, in 2022, was just under $67,000 for the role of community outreach specialist, a job he still has.

The contract and full-time roles share the larger mission of engaging the community with the district, begging the question of whether he was simultaneously being paid twice for the same work. Farley contends the duties are distinct.

It’s clear, especially with the latest news about Farley’s outstanding state income tax debt, which includes $5,763 in unpaid taxes in 2016, $8,824 in unpaid taxes in 2017 and penalties and interest adding up to $28,369.94, that Farley owes the public the clearest explanation possible. He says he’s working with the state tax department’s Bureau of Conciliation and Mediation Services to resolve the tax-debt issue, but he must also be forthright in explaining his role in signing contracts with the school district year after year, all while drawing a full-time salary for very similar work.

So far, he’s been dismissive of claims that he was double-dipping.

Finally this week, Mayor Gary McCarthy called for more transparency, and Councilman John Polimeni called for an investigation by the city’s ethics board. That kind of pressure on Farley is warranted.

But it’s also undeniable that the system clearly helped enable all of this, and we need to know what exactly transpired.

We know that in opting not to renew Common Thread’s contract in 2021, the school district acknowledged that proper procurement protocols weren’t followed in the past.

A statement from the New York State Education Department said: “School districts are required to comply with their purchasing policies as well as the General Municipal Law when entering into contracts.”

NYSED declined further comment on the specific contract issue.

We also know that purchase contracts above $20,000 are supposed to be put out for competitive bidding, according to the New York State School Boards Association’s “39th Edition of School Law.”

While some exceptions exist: “School districts purchasing goods or services that are not subject to competitive bidding must take measures to ensure the prudent and economical use of public moneys,” the document states.

We can’t be assured of any of that here. In fact, we still have more questions than answers, with the school district saying it has no idea how these contracts during Spring’s tenure came to be signed.

“We are not sure how the initial contract was developed or what the approval path was. There is no evidence that the appropriate path was followed which would include board of education approval,” district spokesperson Karen Corona wrote in an email. “There is no record of who drafted the contract. That was done in 2015 prior to the current administration.”

So how were the contracts approved?

Notably, Farley’s contracts weren’t the only contracts Soler chose not to renew as a result of improper procedure. For the district to simply attempt to move on is woefully inadequate.

The roots of all this need untangling.

After all, if Farley’s contract situation doesn’t surprise us, I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn about other potentially dubious arrangements within the district.

Schenectady’s current administration has adopted a “#SchenectadyRising” mantra. But first we need to understand just how deep the district’s troubles run as a result of previous leadership.

Otherwise, the district risks being forever dragged down by its past.

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

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

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