Battle over Harriston school raged into summer of 1954

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Last week’s column described the efforts of the 1954 Harriston Board of Education to replace the town’s over-crowded school (215 students crammed into an obsolete six-room building). 

During the early months of 1954, Harriston council had approved the issuing of $160,000 of debentures to fund the project. That council flipped back and forth several times.

On April 15 council voted to rescind an earlier motion that had approved the funding. The board members, naturally, were livid.

The board convened in a special session the next night, and voted to pursue the matter with the Department of Education and the Ontario Municipal Board OMB). Members visited Toronto several times on the matter. Both bodies advised the school board to again request council to approve the debenture issue, or face an injunction that would force them to do so.

The board met for another council meeting on May 6, 1954, and drafted a letter for council to consider at its meeting the next day. They requested that council pass the borrowing bylaw and submit it for OMB approval no later than May 22.

Council’s May 7 meeting was a tense one. Harriston’s solicitor, J.H. Shannon, criticized the legal opinion of Campbell Grant, who had been hired by a group of disgruntled citizens, and whose advice had led to the decision to deny funding on April 15. 

His opinion was that both the council and board were in error, and that a new referendum should be held to get the ratepayers’ opinion on the $160,000 debenture issue.

The majority of council, though, were swayed by the strong words of the Education Department and the OMB. A new motion to instruct the solicitor to prepare the debenture issue passed by a vote of 4-3. Those opposed were the hard core of new school opponents: Mrs. W.A . Dinniwell, Oscar Lerch, and John McNab. Councillor Hamilton was so upset he left the meeting and did not vote.

The school board met again on May 11, convinced that the war was over. The members made plans to hire an architect and to select a site (the existing school, on a one-acre parcel, was far too small). Meanwhile, ballooning enrolment meant that they would need another classroom for the school year starting in September.

They approached the library board, requesting space at the Harriston library, but that board told them that the washroom facilities and other amenities there were entirely inadequate. A few weeks later the Board of Education reached an agreement to use space at Harriston’s new arena for a temporary additional classroom.

Opponents of the new school did not roll over. Someone started a rumour that the grade 1 class had dwindled to 30, from a high of 47 in the fall of 1953. Others wanted a new vote to be held on the debenture issue, and they kept up the pressure on councillors.

At their next meeting on May 21, council reversed itself again. Council voted twice on the matter, first to issue the debentures, and secondly, to ask the OMB for an extension of time to approve the borrowing. Both votes were recorded ones, and both lost by a 4-4 tie. The school board, at a meeting four days later, authorized their lawyer to begin legal action against council to force the issue. Under a provision of the Public Schools Act, they could demand a referendum, and council would be bound by the results.

On May 26, council conducted a tour of the school, and then filed a report with the Department of Education. They concluded that the building was in excellent physical shape. The report claimed that interior walls could be reconfigured to add two classrooms to the building, and that lighting, ventilation and insulation could all be upgraded easily.

The school board still had an ace up their sleeve: the condition of the roof. Though only two years old, it leaked badly. The contract had been completed by two members of the school board, Jack Davidson and W.A. Robins. 

At the invitation of the board, an engineer from the Fire Marshal’s Office inspected the school on June 18. He found a number of deficiencies in the electrical system and the furnace room, and recommended that fire escapes be added for all three second-floor classrooms and that the doors be replaced with proper exit doors. 

In June, three of the leading opponents of the new school, Roy Corman, John Fawcett and William Neil, launched a legal action to unseat board members W.A. Robins, Jack Davidson and Hugh Murray for alleged irregularities.

Judge R.S. Clarke considered the motion on June 23, and ruled that it was out of order on technical grounds.

He gave the three ratepayers until July 8 to re-file their motion. The gist of the complaint was that one of the accused had sold material for the existing school’s roof, another had used the material on the roof, and a third member of the Board of Education had irregularities in his travelling expenses.

Judge Clarke heard the case again in July, but dismissed the whole affair. It was the fourth time in 1954 that he had dealt with some aspect of the Harriston school affair, and he was growing weary of the bickering, as well as the costs that were accruing to Harriston ratepayers for all the legal manoeuvres. He considered them all frivolous and petty.

Weary of the battle, both council and the board backed away from the school issue in late July. By that time of the year, it was unlikely that money could be approved, a design drafted, land purchased and the project tendered before winter. As well, the school board decided not to spend any more money on legal proceedings . The school issue would be deferred to Harriston’s 1955 agenda.

With municipal elections on the horizon, board member Jack Davidson renewed the school wars with a letter in the Harriston Review on Dec. 2, 1954. 

He outlined the situation clearly in his argument for a new school: the provincial government would cover 40% of the debenture payments on a new school, but not for renovations to an old building; the required fire escapes on the old building would cost at least $5,000; and renovations to add two more classrooms would be prohibitively expensive because the work would entail moving interior load-bearing walls made of brick. 

He noted the temporary classroom in the arena had been ordered by the ministry, and that a second additional classroom would be ordered for September 1955.

The nomination meeting, on Nov. 29, produced the expected overflow crowd, but much less animosity than most people expected. No one challenged Mayor Percy Dryden, but 16 people qualified for the race to fill the six councillor’s seats.

With voting a week later, on Dec. 6, the campaign was a brief one. Harriston’s ratepayers, it seems, were generally weary of the school battle. The turnout was an impressive 81%. Of the four hardcore new school opponents on the 1954 council, only Oscar Lerch was re-elected.

Three novices sat at the table: Fred Beck, Hugh Murray and Don Dodds. They had led the polls. One surprise was the defeat of Reeve George Walkey by GC. Dale, by a rather slim margin, 380-359.

Though it arrived too late to influence the election, an inspection report by Dr. B.T. Dale, of the Wellington County Health Unit, underlined the necessity for a new school. He cited poor ventilation, inadequate washrooms and cracks in the walls. His light meter showed that illumination was but a fraction of the provincial standards, and was particularly bad in the room that had formerly been the gymnasium.

And by December 1954 enrolment had risen to 242, including the temporary classroom at the arena. The arguments of those opposed were melting away. The new year of 1955 would see a fresh attempt at construction.

Next week: building and opening a new Harriston school.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 18, 2008.

Thorning Revisited