A CASUAL observer might have trouble reconciling reluctant school board candidate Carmella Yenkevich of 1997 with the angry Yenkevich currently fighting to retain her seat after narrowly losing last month’s primary.
But if you’ve followed Yenkevich’s trajectory, you know there is no contradiction.
Prior to her political career, Yenkevich worked behind the scenes to improve education for her children and others through the Parent Teacher Associations of Hazleton Area School District. She rose to president of the district’s PTA council, and found her public voice in the early 1990s — almost certainly thanks to the more vocal and feisty PTA leader Betsy Durso.
Durso had fought for seven years to get her son held back a grade, convinced he had started kindergarten a year too early and suffered ever since. She went public with her fight in the summer of 1995, and Yenkevich supported the effort.
The two became frequent champions for more district consultation with parents on matters small and large, from a lack of paper towels and hot water in bathrooms to the shape of a what became a district-wide construction and renovation project.
They were also publicists for all the good PTAs did. In the 1994-95 school year, for example, elementary school PTAs had spent about $85,000 on student activities.
The pair ran for school board in 1997, a time when Hazleton Area’s board was composed almost entirely (with the notable exception of Ed Pane) of cronies and career politicians. The due became the vanguard of a major reform movement that brought the downfall of many long-term incumbents and the rise of parents and taxpayer advocates.
In those early campaigning days, Yenkevich would frequently speak on the record in only two situations: You were asking about something that had earned her profound devotion — treatment and opportunities of students topped the list — or Durso had prodded her to add her voice to the issue at hand.
Otherwise, Yenkevich preferred to demur, acknowledging her lack of expertise and inexperience in dealing with media and politics.
I wrote a story in May, 1997, about Yenkevich’s low-budget campaign compared to a trio of taxpayer advocates who had bought enough signs to plaster a building or two. “Now take all the campaign signs board candidate Carmella Yenkevich has,” I noted, “Measure it all you want, the sign won’t even make a decent window shade.”
Yenkevich lost, but tried again in 1999, teaming up with three others, including — somewhat ironically, now — Steve Hahn. Hahn is the reason Yenkevich is fighting for her seat. He withdrew from last month’s primary, but the Luzerne County Election Bureau didn’t notify Schuylkill and Carbon County of that fact.
A small part of the district lies in those counties, and Hahn drew enough votes in both to raise concerns that, had he not been on the ticket, Yenkevich — who came in a close fifth on both party tickets — could have won a spot on the November ballot.
That saga is still unfolding, but here’s the rub: To the jaded eye, Yenkevich could easily appear to be another entrenched politician grasping at straws to retain power after the voters have spoken. Yet anyone who knows her history would find such a narrative absurd.
Yenkevich is fighting for what she has always championed, the fundamental reason for public education: Equity and an equal chance for all to succeed.
If we can’t assure those simple virtues in a school board election, how can school boards assure them for our kids?
Reach Mark Guydish at 970-7161.