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July 11, 2004

  • The Day They Closed My High School - Part Two
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    For fifteen years, I have held on to a large file folder that holds all my papers pertaining to the fight to keep Perdue High School open. Miss Ross, the school’s community liason officer (she also taught me drama and English and was one of the most sharp-witted women I’ve ever met) scrupulously kept all the newspaper clippings and allowed me photocopy them. I also kept all the minutes to board meetings, all the drafts from speeches I wrote, all the pro forma notices to students on how to call their school board trustees, and all the notes I took. They’re there with photographs of board meetings, and even a tape of my appearance on CBC Radio Toronto’s Metro Morning.

    I flip through the pages. There’s a full page op-ed piece from February 5, 1988 in the local paper, the Oakville Beaver on Perdue written by Graham Norgate, a highly articulate parent: “It is disturbing how much of this debate focuses on the location and use of buildings. A school is not a building. It is a small community of students and teachers with its own program, character, culture, and special needs. We cannot expect to be clear about questions related to buildings unless we establish priorities for the school themselves.”

    There’s a political cartoon of Wally Beevor, the Director of Education for Halton County, wearing a hangman’s outfit, preparing a noose for a hanging while the scaffold is surrounded by a mob armed with pitchforks and placards saying “SAVE PERDUE” and “NO CLOSURE”. The simulacrum of Beevor is saying “Crisis? What Crisis?”

    I have the hand-written notes of a presentation by Sue Bennett, a Grade 11 student, to the Study Committee of Parents and Board Members. Sue, like all of us, tried to emphasize the unique experiment in multiculturalism we had going on, “Everyone is accepted for who they are and not what culture they are from, which is something I think is hard to come by anywhere.” A little further along there are letters to the editor, supporting the school, from Sue’s parents.

    There’s all sorts of articles by the Oakville Beaver‘s education reporter, Angela Blackburn, a petite, attractive woman with an Annie Lennox haircut who flustered me every time I spoke to her. One of them, dated January 29, sports the page one headline, “Separate school board eyes Perdue: Catholic Board wants first right of refusal on property.”

    And there’s an Op-ed piece in the Oakville Beaver by the other trustees from Oakville—Pat Hillhouse, Patty Wilcox and Len Crosier—representing their side of the story. Their argument was simple: the real remedy for the problems facing education were in building a new school in the north end of the town and Perdue needed to be closed. Changing boundaries was dismissed out of hand as a solution that would not help in the long term.

    A showdown was coming.

    A showdown in the snow, no less. Students, Teachers and Parents braved the worst snowstorm of the winter of 1988 to attend a meeting of the Halton Board of Education in Burlington on Thursday, February 25 to show up in force. It was a minor miracle we made it at all. We couldn’t afford the insurance for a school bus to bring students to an extra-cirricular activity, so between Tom Adams, the Vice Principal, the school secretaries and myself, we cooked up a permission slip that would allow students to carpool there. Even then we were looking at 30 or so people.

    In the end more than 100 people turned up. We surrounded the board chambers, we sat on the floor, we brought our signs saying “The Spirit is Alive.”

    And the Board of Education turned down the study committee’s recommendation to make boundary changes in the town of Oakville.

    Board meetings were curious beasts. There was the warm-up act with members of the public making intercession—the most remarkable of which had to be the man who spent his five minutes criticizing seemingly every single facet of the board, including schools having air conditioning in the summer months (he hadn’t heard of summer school, evidently). This was followed by the incredible tedium of sitting through an agenda and all its interminable minutae.

    Come the main event, everything was anti-climactic. The Board’s Chair, Trustee Pat Hillhouse—herself the epitome of East Oakville anglo waspishness—dismissed our claims with expedience. My main recollection was of the one Trustee who said “There will be a bloodbath if we start busing that many students.” Remember that remark, folks, for later on.

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    We were given one faint hope of reprieve when a Burlington trustee proposed a study of school boundaries to be put on the agenda for the next meeting. The next day, Danny Rialti had a picture of him holding a placard on the front page of the Burlington Spectator. I was quoted in the article. That evening I was driving somewhere with friends from other high schools in Oakville. The subject of the Board Meeting came up. None of them even cared.

    But we cared, and we were there in full force the following week. This time we had students in the opening line-up. Danny Rialti and another student gave a speech that, while not the most poetic, was honest and he had the photographers scrambling for cameras.

    I had made a submission of my own. That winter, my Grade 13 English exam had Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” as a text. I did my own homage to that venerable treatise, suggesting in mock-servile language that perhaps the best solution would be to make Perdue a parking lot for Oakville Trafalgar High School, the school in East Oakville. “By converting Perdue into a parking lot… you would be benefiting the community a great deal. Those people who worry about giving up anything to the Separate School Board can now be assured—under Bill 30 presently, you can’t transfer a parking lot. Why, by doing this you might even be able to give the impression that OTHS isn’t overcrowded—after all, out of sight, out of mind.”

    To this day, I think it was one of the best things I’ve ever written. I even received a standing ovation for that piece at the Board of Education’s next meeting.

    Unfortunately, the commendation came after they voted down our faint-hope study proposal, so it was lost in my disgust as I learned something crucial about the way the world worked.

    The proposal for a study was vigorously debated. The usual suspects stayed true to their colours, but there was some interesting movement. Some trustees were reversing their positions I sat beside Ozzie Caldarelli, our principal, trying to do a head count. It was going to be close. A recorded vote was requested. There were 16 trustees. It was 8-7 against. The last vote was Mrs. Hillhouse’s, who had vociferously opposed any such study, and indeed opposed any such change to the status quo.

    There was a brief pause, and then Hillhouse voted in favour. It was a tie.

    Pandemonium erupted. We were all cheering. But then Mrs. Hillhouse called everyone to order and informed us that, under the Board’s rules of governance a tie vote meant the motion was lost.

    I don’t know how long it took until it clicked: as the last person to vote, Hillhouse knew the vote would lose either way; her choice was governed on how she wanted to be perceived. To this day, I think it was the most cynical thing I’ve ever seen.

    An attempt to bring forward a closure vote was rebuffed. We’d have to come back in two weeks to watch Perdue get closed.

    But what a difference those two weeks made.

    Somewhere along the line, a ratepayers’ association in East Oakville—the kind that gives NIMBY its prestigious acronym—caught wind that the new building for Oakville Trafalgar High School would be in their neighbourhood and they didn’t like that at all. A couple of us met them at one point. They wore expensive suits and carried expensive briefcases. My friend Bob and I called them the IBM Boys. The IBM Boys knew that blocking our closure would block the building of a new school, so they lobbied Oakville Town Council. Suddenly, Town Council—who had taken a hands-off attitude about this whole mess—started making noise to the Board of Education.

    We were making noises of our own. A group of us had launched a campaign to get students to phone a trustee. We split up the list and gave a pro-forma for students to use. I don’t know how successful it was, but I was surprised to keep hearing students tell me their stories of calling trustees—both good and ill. For my part, I called mostly everyone, though I chickened out when it came to calling Mrs. Hillhouse.

    The story was gaining momentum in the press. At 6am on the Thursday of the Board Meeting, I took a cab into Toronto with my father and went to CBC’s Cabbagetown studios to be interviewed on CBC Metro Morning. I still have the tape. I remember Ozzie Calderelli paid for the cab ride. “Best 30 bucks I’ve ever spent” he told me.

    Later that morning, I was in my Economics class, doing anything but reading about supply-side economics and instead reading the Board’s procedures around school closure. I noticed that before a school closure could even come on the table, an independent study of area schools was, in fact, required—but had, noticably, not taken place for us. I quickly called our local trustee, Janis Millman. Janis said she had noticed that too, but she downplayed it and said it wasn’t important. I was convinced, though, it was important. While Graham Norgate made a barn-burner of a speech at the Board meeting that evening, I wrote down a question on that point to give to the clerk to be asked to the Board at the meeting. (I have that scrap of paper even today). I never handed it in. Janis, it turned out, had been downplaying this little tidbit for a reason. She had been talking with lawyers. The Board had screwed the pooch in terms of performing due diligence.

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    At the time I called it “Miracle on Guelph Line”. Once it became clear that they needed to do further study, the motion to close the school was defeated. The school was seemingly saved. We celebrated. Speaking to the school at an assembly—where I screamed, James Brown-like “I feel good!” the next day was one of the greatest moments of my life.

    The school year continued. I finished researching my major independent study essay on George Orwell. I was turned down by the pretty and intelligent Oakville Trafalgar High School student I was in love with. I worked on the yearbook. I bought a new suit for the grad formal. And I failed my Functions and Relations class—a course I had paid little or no attention to in the midst of the crises surrounding me at the time—and was unable to graduate. The irony was that I helped save the school but flunked high school (at least til I finished summer school in August) as a result.

    And as spring turned to summer and then to autumn, we were confident that the independent study—given to the prestigious firm of Deloitte, Haskins and Sells—would say what we were saying: that changing the boundaries around schools in Oakville was the only sane and just decision to make.

    Except they didn’t.

    In September, I went for a routine visit to the school (I had graduated but was taking a year off before going to university) where I discovered that Deloitte, Haskins and Sells’ report (Which, with cruel irony, misspelled Perdue’s name throughout) said the real remedy for the problems facing education were in building a new school in the north end of the town and Perdue needed to be closed.

    It turned out the fix was in—Deloitte, Haskins and Sells were never mandated to explore other options such as boundary changes. The study turned out to be nothing more than a delaying tactic to close the school in a less hostile atmosphere. On the Friday I dropped by, it was announced they would be bringing a closure vote to the Board in two weeks.

    I dutifully went to the Board Meeting in October 1988 where they voted to close Perdue at the end of the school year. This time, I actually made a speech to the board. So did other supporters. There was nothing we could do and we knew it, but we lodged our protest anyway.

    On June 16, 1989, I watched as they officially closed Gordon E. Perdue High School. One year after the day they closed my high school, it became known that the Separate School Board was to take possession of Perdue High School, where it would eventually become St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School . True to their word, the Board of Education insisted on payment for the facility rather than outright transfer—so they sold it for a dollar.

    One year after that, a new facility was built for Oakville Trafalgar High School in East Oakville. A year or so later, they had another high school in the north end of the town.

    It’s hard to look at these events without seeing a connection. Perdue was, in the end, a pawn on a bigger political chessboard, sacrificed to maintain good relations with one body so that other political favours might be granted.

    The irony is, though, our claim that Perdue High School could have been viable was proven right in the end. The Harris Conservatives in Ontario killed any hope of new schools being built in Oakville. Today, hundreds of students are bussed everyday to schools miles away from their home. The bloodbath one trustee predicted in 1988 is now an everyday reality fifteen years later.

    I look through my folder and sift through the detritus of my fight to save Perdue High School. I read the news clippings, the reports, the briefs, the op-ed pieces and I see the story of how some ordinary teenagers, their parents and their teachers rallied under extraordinary circumstances to make the impossible happen, and, briefly, achieved it. I see the story of how I both gained and lost my idealism. And I see the story of the most exciting, the most vibrant, the most thrilling and the most disappointing time of my life.

    As the cliche goes, I wish I was eighteen again.

    Posted by graeme | (2) Comments | Permalink

    << The Day They Closed My High School - Part One   |   Main   |   Paul Moth's Triumphant Re-Entry >>

    Mark Blans  on  05/13  at  11:52 PM

    Even after I left the school (at grade 13) I went back to see me Electrical teacher, Mr. Lee.
    I went on to work for a large corporation, learned computer programming, left that corp., went to work for a high-tech company and never looked back!
    I went on to college and never turned back.
    Purdue, was a fantastic school, and I was saddened to hear it had been bought out.
    Although it was classified as a “trade type” school, it gave me all the skills I needed to make me a super-successful business operator later on in life.
    I can only hope, everyone else did as well?
    Life, is only as much as you’re willing to make out of it?  I hope you did?
    Mark (Class of 76A).

    Perry Wilford  on  07/15  at  05:33 PM

    Well written Mr. Burk

    I miss my school, I truly do. I am saddened by the fact that the odd times I find myself in Oakville I can’t even gaze upon the shell of it. The multi-culturalism of that place coupled with the less-than-a thousand population made it a pretty tight place to be educated.

    The teachers there helped to mold who I was to become and I am a better man for having known them and been surrounded by some pretty exceptional fellow students.

    There is a hole now without the school around. many of the best parts of me came as a result of being there and I feel honoured that I was.

    Perry, class of 82.

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