Controversial Harriston school opened in 1956

The previous two columns described Harriston’s political battle in 1953 and 1954 to build an eight-room public school for the town and part 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 and alarm­ed that ratepayers were becoming upset over the legal costs of their fight. The issue, of course, was a major one in the municipal election in December. Vot­ing showed the majority of rate­payers favoured the school: only one of four anti-school coun­­cil­lors was elected for 1955, and a pro-school major­ity again con­stituted the Board of Education.
The new board met Jan. 12, and selected Don Aitchison as 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 ap­peared at 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, trustees 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 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, at 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 it 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 to 285, and J.C. Dale trump­ed Oscar Lerch 375 to 336. Walter Sylvester was the only new face at the council table, taking Lerch’s seat.
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 some $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 schools’ total op­era­ting budget was $17,776 for the year.
A ceremony for the laying of a 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 students 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 enrollment 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.

Stephen Thorning