The Scarecrow’s gunWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
“Well, what would you do with a brain if you had one?” — Dorothy
The Yellow Brick Road to preserving Libbey High School will not originate from One Government Center or 445 E. Manhattan Blvd.
We recently showed our young sons “The Wizard of Oz.” They were swept away by the swiftly moving story and infectious songs, as they followed Dorothy and her coterie through their perilous and eventful journey.
On March 4, as I watched an hourlong meeting concerning the fate of Libbey High School, I could not stop feeling I was reliving Frank L. Baum’s fever dream.
Activist Warren Woodberry and the Libbey Preservation Committee envisioned a meeting in which they could present several alternatives to the demolition of the buildings on the Libbey Campus on Western Ave. There are two key points to their plan. First, no one is fighting to restore Libbey as an active high school. It is understood by even the most fervent Libbey alumni that there will never again be Toledo Public Schools freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors ebbing and flowing through the halls like blood cells pumping through a network of arteries and veins. Second, there is no movement to save all of Libbey; the roof damage, accumulating water rot and general disrepair have doomed the magnificent main building. But the newer field house, food preparation space and vocational center offer an opportunity to create a community center that could house several services.
Among the two dozen ideas for Libbey usage Woodberry and the preservation committee were anxious to present were after school and GED programs, food and assistance programs, a voting site, a small manufacturing area, a computer training center, day care programs, a green technology site and vocational training. These are ideas, not signed contracts, but they are not concepts that can be described as unrealistic or impossible to implement.
Woodberry had noble intentions, but events beyond his control, like a tornado sweeping through the plains of Kansas, conspired to throw everything into chaos.
Over the rainbow
Before the 11 a.m. meeting, Toledo Mayor Mike Bell met with TPS officials — and only the most naïve among us would believe they were huddling to practice a choral arrangement of “Over the Rainbow.” According to the mayor’s office, “It was about two minutes and they exchanged pleasantries and [Bell] clearly articulated his position on Libbey to them so that they knew where he stood.”
From the beginning of the 11 a.m. meeting, it was clear that Bell, flanked by TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko and TPS Board of Education President Bob Vasquez, was not there to facilitate a protracted conversation about the effort to preserve Libbey.
The meeting included two dozen elected officials (including TPS Board of Education member Brenda Hill, Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak, Lucas County Administrator Peter Ujvagi and Toledo City Councilman Steve Steel), Libbey supporters, a few businessmen (including Fifth Third Bank President and Libbey graduate Robert LaClair) and cameras from the local television news stations.
There was enough straw wafting from the Scarecrow contingent to cover a path from One Government Center to Topeka. And while there were no Cowardly Lions in the room, there were several people Woodberry believed would be in attendance who were notably absent, including Sen. Edna Brown, former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner and Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority member Jerry Chabler.
Bell’s first statement was that the meeting would not be allowed to exceed 60 minutes. Bell’s second statement was that the City of Toledo was not going to take any financial responsibility for Libbey’s preservation nor its demolition costs. Neither of those definitive statements fostered any hope for a true dialogue. Bell was not surrounded by flames and green smoke, but he spoke with the authority of the Great and Powerful Oz himself, with that wizard’s penchant for “I will talk, you will listen” communication.
And your little dog, too
Before Woodberry, the ostensible host of the meeting, could speak, Bell gave the floor to Pecko, who made it clear that TPS had no intention of missing an Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC) deadline for demolishing Libbey. Before he could finish, Toledo City Councilman (and Libbey graduate) D. Michael Collins interjected that he had testified before the OSFC on Feb. 24, and secured commitment that the $2.25 million in demolition funds could be guaranteed for an additional 24 months.
Like a pack of the Wicked Witch of the West’s winged henchmen, the TPS officials and Bell descended on Collins, questioning and doubting his comments about the OSFC arrangement. It was strikingly clear that Collins and Bell are not mutual fans; they seem to work together as well as a falling house and the Wicked Witch of the East.
Again, before Woodberry could begin, TPS Board of Education member Larry Sykes jumped in. Sykes, in an important community forum with the clock ticking, opened his comments with a glance at me and the statement that “I am not a terrorist,” a reference to a Feb. 6 column in which I described TPS’ decimation of the South End as “institutional terrorism.” Well, Mr. Sykes, despite your aggressive effort to single me out in a large crowd and intimidate future commentary, you made your point — you are no terrorist.
A terrorist is scary.
Sykes, the Tin Man displaying no heart, brusquely proclaimed that “the die were cast” on Libbey and that he did not see any chance that the TPS board would change its vote to demolish Libbey.
He said all that before one word on Libbey’s behalf was uttered by its supporters.
Within minutes, three levels of government exposed their egos, prejudices and alliances. If only a sixth-grade civics class had been watching from behind a panel of glass.
I’m melting! Melting!
Finally, Woodberry took the floor and implored the attendees to focus on the positive opportunities. He and his allies — including Sue Terrill of the Libbey Alumni Association, former Libbey basketball coach Leroy Bates and green technology housing expert Bill Decker — tried to build a case for the alternative uses of the Libbey property, but the preceding conflict and hostility punctured any opportunity for an open exchange of ideas. The impatience and disinterest on display from the city and TPS officials melted the meeting’s intent as surely as a bucket of water vaporized the Wicked Witch of the West.
It looked like the hour-long meeting was effectively ended within 30 minutes, but then, like a floating pink bubble heralding Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, Rep. Marcy Kaptur arrived. It did not take long for Kaptur to sum up the atmosphere; “I sense a lot of tension,” she said, in the most diplomatic comment since “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Since no one recapped the first 30 minutes of the meeting for her, Kaptur could not have known that the discussion did not for one minute focus on returning Libbey to its former status as an active school. So she opened her comments on that exact topic, suggesting the University of Toledo, or more likely Owens Community College, might utilize the campus for an educational opportunity. Kaptur did not wave a wand or cue the Munchkin chorus, but she brought a calm to the meeting that had been noticeably absent.
There’s no place like home
One of the productive, albeit inconclusive, conversation threads followed the projected costs of maintaining the Libbey buildings for Collins’ hypothetical 24 months. TPS Chief Business Manager James Gant estimated it would take a minimum $150,000 a year to “mothball” the unoccupied building, a number that does not include roof repairs or other essential preservation steps.
Various members of Toledo’s Lollipop Guild interjected during the meeting, but there was no true plan or course of action presented. There was more discussion of Collins’ OSFC proposal and agreement that there needs to be a short- and long-term needs discussion, but Woodberry and his allies never really gained control of the meeting from the yapping Totos in the room.
At noon, the monthly city alarm test effectively ended the meeting. Two dozen people from every level of Toledo government came together and left with nothing as resolute or certain as that blaring siren.
For as closely as its situation mirrored Dorothy’s, the collective group might as well have been wearing ruby slippers. The power to fix Libbey has been within them all along, but they are distracted by nostalgia, dreams, fears and the chatter of people who carry more resources in their brains, hearts and guts than they realize.
While watching “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time in 30 years, I was struck by a scene I did not remember from my small-screen viewing as a child. Just after the Wizard dispatches Dorothy and her posse to capture the Wicked Witch’s broomstick, they are shown in the haunted forest. Tin Man has his ax and a Quentin Tarrantino-size pipe wrench, Lion has a net and a Gallagher mallet and the Scarecrow is carrying … a gun. It’s a silver revolver, and to see it is to be shocked out of the film’s magical, musical “reality.”
Seeing a Toledo community movement fall victim to the least productive elements of Toledo politics was a real-life “Scarecrow’s gun” moment, a surreal, jarring, impossible to reconcile collision of liars and bribers and glares.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Contact him through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tags: BIll Decker, Bob Vasquez, Brenda Hill, Carty Finkbeiner, City of Toledo, D. Michael Collins, Edna Brown, Frank L. Baum, Gallagher, James Gant, Jerome Pecko, Jerry Chabler, Larry Sykes, Leroy Bates, Libbey High School, Lighting The Fuse, Marcy Kaptur, Michael S. Miller, Mike Bell, Owens Community College, Peter Ujvagi, Quentin Tarrantino, Robert LaClair, Sue Terrill, Tina Skeldon Wozniak, Toledo Public Schools, University of Toledo, Warern Woodberry, Wizard of Oz