Epic political battle preceded 1956 Harriston school

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.

Most of the towns and cities of Ontario constructed new schools in the 1870s, and Wellington County was no exception. Two developments factored into that boom in construction: a growing and more stable urban population, with large families; and the introduction of compulsory schooling by the provincial government.

Those schools, with additions, served for decades. Some were replaced in the 1920s, but many continued in use until the 1950s and later. Invariably they were two-storey structures. Over time they became obsolescent, particularly when local school boards were slow in undertaking improvements and renovations.

The old Harriston Public School was one of those institutions. It was built in 1875, with later additions and renovations. In 1953, with an enrolment of about 220 crowding its six classrooms, Harriston’s Board of Education decided it was time to replace the structure. Overcrowding was just one of the problems. Maintenance and repairs were increasingly expensive, and the cramped grounds meant that playground space was substandard.

In the early 1950s, local school boards had to get the approval of the provincial Department of Education to undertake new construction. As well, the local council had a voice in planning, because council had to approve the issuance of debentures. And the debenture issue itself had to be approved by the Ontario Municipal Board.

Provincial approval in 1953 came easily. Officials were anxious to get rid of the older 19th century buildings, with their poor lighting and ventilation. Many were fire hazards, and few had facilities such as a gymnasium. The board agreed that a new eight-room school should be built, and that the project should cost about $160,000, based on costs of similar projects that ran to about $20,000 per room.

Harriston’s 1953 council raised no objections. Both council and the board expected that the planning and design work would fill the coming winter months, and that the shovel would be in the ground in early spring. Final approval of the project would be made by the 1954 board and council. With no problems, the new school would open the following September.

On Jan. 19, 1954 the Harriston Home and School Association held a panel discussion on the proposed school. Discussing the situation were board chairman W.A. Robins; the board chairman and principal of the new Norwell High School in Palmerston; Milton Bridge, principal of Harriston Public School; and Evelyn Parker of the Home and School Association. J.C. Dale acted as chairman for the discussion.

Robins took the lead in discussing the proposed school. He noted the current overcrowding, and using census figures to project future enrolment, showed that the situation would get much worse in the coming five years. He also outlined the many deficiencies in the existing building. He said the new school, financed with 20 or 30-year debentures, would place little strain on Harriston ratepayers.

All members of the panel agreed that a new school should be built, and there were few in the audience who opposed the project, though a couple urged that the new building be delayed until the rise in enrolment proved to be permanent.

Harriston council met the following night. They acknowledged that the 1953 council had approved a new school in principle, but wished to have a referendum on the debenture issue. They scheduled a vote for Feb. 15.

The Harriston Review strongly supported the new school. An addition to the existing school would be expensive and awkward, stated the editor, and would further reduce the size of the playground. The enrolment in 1958 was projected to be 315, or 53 per class, and the current Grade 1 class had 47 students.

The results of the vote surprised supporters of the new school. Ratepayers approved the debenture issue, but by a narrow margin, 181-150, with a 66% turnout. Nevertheless, school supporters expected a routine Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) approval of the debenture issue.

Over the next two weeks the project began to unravel. A a special council meeting on March 4 considered the matter. Undoubtedly pushed by anti-school voters, two councillors wanted the Feb. 15 results set aside because the voters’ list was not up to date, and the referendum had not been advertised for the required three weeks.

At the regular council meeting the next night, council approved a motion to submit the matter to Judge R.S. Clarke of Guelph for a ruling. Only councillors Holtom and Hamilton were opposed.

Judge Clarke heard the opinions of Mayor Percy Dryden, board chairman Robins, and others. He questioned town clerk Emerson Jordan at length and reserved his opinion.

When he announced his ruling a few days later no one was satisfied. He acknowledged that the voters list may not have been proper and that timing might have been tight, but on balance there was not sufficient evidence to determine whether the vote was proper or improper.

Tempers were notched up higher at the next council meeting on March 19. There were loud arguments among councillors on the interpretation of the judge’s ruling, with occasional interjections by board members, most of whom were present. The session ended with a motion to issue the debentures. It lost by a vote of 5-3. Only Mayor Dryden and councillors Holtom and Dodds were in favour.

Furious at the outcome of that meeting, the Board of Education met the following evening. Members were now determined to proceed with the school that year and as quickly as possible. They unanimously approved a motion to hire Mount Forest lawyer Roy Grant to take legal steps to force Harriston council to issue the debentures.

During the following weeks there were informal discussions among the lawyers, councillors and board members. School Board members and Home and School members attended the next council meeting on April 2. All who spoke favoured the new school, and lawyer Roy Grant outlined his view of the legal situation for council.

In response, council voted to rescind its vote against the debenture issue. A little past midnight they passed a new one, instructing the town solicitor to prepare a $160,000 issue of debentures.

This time the vote was 5-3 in favour, with only councillors J. McNab, O. Lerch and Mrs. Dinniwell opposed.

That resolution was far from the end of the matter.

A group of ratepayers, determined to stop the school, hired lawyer Campbell Grant of Walkerton to review the matter. 

He reviewed Judge Clarke’s ruling, and his view was that council would be acting improperly and illegally were they to issue the debentures. He advised council by letter that they rescind any motions on the books, and to call another referendum, after the preparation of an accurate voters’ list.

Harriston council considered the new legal opinion at its April 15 meeting. It was just what they had been waiting for.

Councillors readily accepted the suggestions, and rescinded their approval of the debentures. The motion to cancel approval, and hold a new vote “if so requested” passed 6-2. An amendment, to refer the matter to Harriston’s own solicitor, went down to defeat by the same margin. A group of anti-school ratepayers at the meeting cheered the new vote.

Temporarily vanquished, the Board of Education decided to call in reinforcements: they appealed to the Department of Education and the Ontario Municipal Board to intervene.

Next week: the Battle of Harriston continues.

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

Thorning Revisited