Controversial Harriston school opened in 1956

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.

The previous two columns described Harriston’s political battle back in 1953 and 1954 to construct a new eight-room public school for the town and a portion of Minto Township. 

The Board of Education wanted to replace the outmoded and overcrowded six-room facility then in use. Harriston council opposed the project.

The two factions backed away from the battle during July of 1954, weary of the fight and alarmed that ratepayers were becoming upset over the legal costs of the fight. 

The issue, of course, was a major one in the municipal election in December. The voting showed that the majority of ratepayers favoured the school: only one of the four anti-school councillors returned for 1955, and a pro-school majority again constituted the Board of Education.

The new Board of Education met for its inaugural session on Jan. 12, and selected Don Aitchison to be chairman. Members discussed a letter from the Department of Education, sent through inspector L.P. Menzies, granting tentative approval for a new building. Two architects were invited to the Board’s February 1955 meeting. They advised on the procedures to follow in designing and building the new school. In March the Board appeared before council, outlining the plans.

It was obvious that the new Board was moving cautiously but ever forward, and attempting to anticipate anything that might derail the project. In April they signed an option to purchase a new school site, on George Street. The following month they went to council again. 

Chairman Aitchison asked that council consider a debenture issue of up to $175,000, and Dr. K.R. Fisk told council that some remedial drainage work might be needed on George Street.

Council gave first reading to a borrowing bylaw on June 3. The town solicitor, after investigation, advised that a 30-year term would be best for the ratepayers. That would require annual payments of about $10,000, to be met by a combination of provincial grants and property taxes. Subsidies would cover roughly 70% of the cost. The province would underwrite only the cost of new buildings, not land purchases or other amenities. Council, seeking further information from its solicitor, decided to delay forwarding the bylaw to the Ontario Municipal Board for approval.

Town solicitor James Shannon discussed the borrowing with council again on July 22. He advised that both the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) and bond dealers recommended a 20-year term. Money would be available at about 3.75% interest. That would require annual payments of about $12,500 per year.

On Aug. 2 council met with the Board of Education, and three days later gave the revised borrowing bylaw a second reading and sent it to the OMB. Only councillor Oscar Lerch was opposed.

New wrinkles developed in late August. A couple of anti-school ratepayers wrote to the OMB, claiming the proposed site was too wet and totally unsuitable for a school. OMB officials did not wish to intervene at that point, but gave tentative approval to the debenture issue, subject to a study of the site by a qualified engineer. The OMB also wanted to see the successful tender, and insisted that the project be within budget before granting final approval for the borrowing.

William Neil, one of the strongest objectors, tried to intervene again with both council and the OMB, but got nowhere. The engineer’s report acknowledged that the site was low, but that a 12-inch drain would solve any potential problems. In the event of a major flood, stated the report, the site was no more vulnerable than most of the town.

On Sept. 13, the school board named G.A. McBride and G.H. Chadwick to a new building committee. Members also requested Harriston council to undertake some ditching work along George Street to improve water runoff.

On Oct. 11 the board formally selected the well-known Toronto firm of Craig and Madill as architects. They had been advising on the project for a couple of months, and were able to put together preliminary drawings in a few days. Trustees presented the drawings to council on Oct. 21. Council was pleased with the plans. They passed a motion supporting the design, subject to approval by the Department of Education. Councillor Oscar Lerch was again the only dissenting vote.

Soon it was time again for municipal elections. The Board of Education had yet to advance the project to the construction stage, but they had managed to overcome much of the vocal opposition to the school, and had pushed the project through almost all the bureaucratic hoops. As a consequence, the school issue was barely mentioned at the nomination meeting on Nov. 25, 1955.

Nevertheless, opponents of the school were not prepared to concede the war. Annie Dinniwell, a defeated member of the 1954 council, challenged mayor Percy Dryden, and councillor Oscar Lerch pitted himself against reeve J.C. Dale. Several other anti-school ratepayers tried for council seats.

The ratepayers were solidly, if not overwhelmingly, in favour of the school. Mayor Dryden held his job by a margin of 424-285, and J.C. Dale trumped Oscar Lerch 375-336. Walter Sylvester was the only new face at the council table.

The Department of Education gave its formal approval of the plans a week after the election, on Dec. 4.

The Board let the contract for the new building on Feb. 14, 1956 to Dunker Construction of Kitchener, for $164,000. That firm had built many schools in the area, including John F. Ross in Guelph the previous year. Work progressed smoothly through the late winter and early spring. The only wrinkle was a minor skirmish between the board and council in May.

Council was startled at a major increase in the school’s operation cost for 1956. The additional costs were for a kindergarten class, to commence in September, a part-time music teacher, and a supply teacher for a half day weekly to relieve the principal for administrative duties. The school’s total operating budget was $17,776 for the year.

A ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone took place on the afternoon of June 14. The students paraded from the old school in formation. Bella Montgomery, a retired teacher, placed a copper box containing artifacts, and retired high school principal Tom Hobbs placed the date stone. MPP John Root delivered the main speech.

Work progressed smoothly through the summer, but there were delays due to extreme heat in late June and July, then further problems with almost daily rains in August. When school reopened on Sept. 4, only the Kindergarten and Grade 6 classes occupied the new building. Work continued for another six weeks on the rest of the structure. The rest of the school moved in on Oct. 22. Official opening ceremonies followed on Oct. 25.

Past animosities were pushed aside for the afternoon affair, conducted outside in fine sunny late fall weather. G.L. Duffin, Ontario’s Assistant Superintendent of Education, officiated. The Harriston Legion marched to the ceremony and presented a flag to the school. There were short speeches from school trustees, councillors, and MPP John Root. A special surprise was a selection of songs by the school’s students, under the direction of the new music teacher, Bruce Nuhn.

Following the ceremony, visitors toured the school, and it was open again the following evening for inspection by the public.

The Board of Education met on Oct. 9, satisfied that the work had been well done after so much animosity and argument. They voted to sell the old school property to the town for $1. The enrolment stood at 292 – up almost 60 from the previous year. Another large Grade 1 class and the new kindergarten accounted for most of the rise.

Harriston’s eight-room public school was finished, a little late but within its budget of $164,000. But another educational war was looming on the horizon. 

The trustees of Norwell High School in Palmerston, which served seven municipalities, planned a $260,000 addition, and Harriston council had indicated its opposition. 

But that is another story, for another time.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Feb. 1, 2008.

Thorning Revisited