Epic political battle preceded 1956 Harriston school

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 obso­lete, 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 enroll­ment 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 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, who was the 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 enroll­ment, 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 enrollment 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 enrollment 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 to 150, with a 66% turnout. Neverthe­less, school supporters expect­ed a routine OMB approval of the debenture issue.
Over the next two weeks, the project began to unravel. A special council meeting on March 4 further 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, then 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 to 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 to 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 to 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: it ap­pealed to the Department of Education and the Ontario Municipal Board to intervene.
Next week: The Battle of Harriston continues  

Stephen Thorning