Almost hidden in the crowd of wild adults, the girl seemed small and so very young.
I don’t know what grade she is in or that she even attends William Prescott Elementary School in the Hill Section of Scranton. But it’s a fair guess to say that she is, indeed, a pupil at the toxic elementary that is mold-infested and will close, hopefully only temporarily, by the end of the month.
The child sat on the edge of her seat Monday night with her hands folded politely in her lap. Taking in the anger, she stared at the line of tense school directors assembled at a couple of long cafeteria-style tables pushed together at the front of the room.
I wanted her to step to the microphone. I wanted her to speak. I wanted to hear her tiny voice tell the adults to make the madness stop. The nerve-racking yelling, fear and raw emotion felt like a dull dentist’s needle. The incompetence, blame and sheer stupidity overwhelmed common sense. The thought of black mold made it hard to think and breath.
I wondered if the child was afraid to go back to school. I wondered if she had any idea what she was up against. I wondered if she would get hurt more than she has been hurt already.
But she remained politely in her seat, watching, listening and feeling whatever she felt.
I stood with my back to the wall like a gunfighter in a cowboy saloon where a chair could fly across the room and at my head at any minute. Had that happened, though, I probably would not have been the target.
Scranton School Board president Bob Lesh stood front and center like an undefeated dunk talk champion. Lesh, throwing insults and crude defensive comebacks at the crowd, was the enemy and the people knew it.
Eventually he apologized for his temper and even uttered a “Semper fi, ooh-rah” to a former U.S. Marine who responded with his own “Ooh-rah” utterance after taking the microphone to discuss his concerns about his child who attends the school.
But it might be too late for Lesh, who is not always faithful to the public service oath he uttered after his last re-election.
A larger concern is whether it’s too late for the school – and maybe even for some of the kids whose parents complained about illness they worry could be caused by toxic mold that has the potential to crush a little lung.
To whatever credit he can muster nowadays, Lesh returned my call yesterday and answered all my questions on the air.
Whatever Lesh lacks in book smarts, he’s an astute political animal who understands what it takes to stay in the Scranton political game the way he has for the 16 years he said he’s been in the “education” business.
Yes, he admitted, during that time he has acted as a go-between for job candidates who came to him for precious positions at the school district.
And yes, if given the chance, he would hire Jeff Brazil all over again at a salary of almost $75,000 a year. Brazil is the Lesh political ally who got the plumb job that wasn’t advertised, for which no applications were received and for which no interview was conducted and then went on to receive the March mold report that he didn’t bother to read and then filed in the wrong filing cabinet.
Black mold then took on a life of its own, growing and thriving during the subsequent six months before the kids returned to the dangerous building to start a new year in a place now known as Toxic Elementary.
Lesh said he has learned big lessons as a result of the scandal. But he has no intention of resigning or allowing the one or two board directors who are supposedly plotting his demise to run him out of power.
That’s just not the way Lesh rolls. A classic neighborhood guy who drives a bus for a living, Lesh seems to relish a good brawl no matter who gets sucker-punched in the crossfire. Recalling a time when inside politics controlled all public positions and contracts in this city, Lesh is an old-time fixer whose aspirations are not grandiose.
Before the other night when he flipped and lost it – unsuccessfully trying to adjourn the meeting and seeming lost his colleagues refused to follow him out the door- I last saw a smiling Lesh standing by the stage at Scranton High School waiting for President Barack Obama to show up for a rally.
Lesh likes being a minor political boss in shadows of the spotlight who can do and receive favors. Saloon culture still rules here. Drinks for the house still win votes. And a custodian’s job in every pot as long as that pot is loaded with campaign contributions is one reason the school district employs 129 full-time custodians (as well as temporary custodians) at a salary of about $45,000 a year plus benefits and overtime.
The custodial union chief, by the way, said yesterday on the air that she has no idea if politics has anything to do with district hiring. It used to, she said, but she doesn’t know about now.
Lesh then called and put any rumor of fairness to rest when he said that politics “absolutely” greases the skids for an undisclosed number of district hires.
My advice to the little girl lost in the crowd – a child to whom Lesh said yesterday he apologized – is to show up at the next meeting wearing a “Bob Lesh for Mayor” t-shirt.
Maybe a city government job looms in her future.
Lesh would no doubt end up a loser if he ran for higher office. But, the little girl and her classmates would understand. They have already lost their sense of safety, security and comfort, might conceivably lose their health and will soon lose their school.
When it comes to losers, every child at Toxic Elementary can relate to every Scranton school director who let down the kids, themselves and our once-proud and mighty city.