When residents of Nipissing District and Parry Sound District vote for trustees from among the various school boards this October, one name usually found on the ballot will be missing.
Strong Township resident Al Bottomley, who represents the Almaguin Highlands under the Near North District School Board, is retiring as a trustee.
Bottomley's tenure spans six terms as a trustee beginning with 2000 shortly after he retired as a teacher at Almaguin Highlands Secondary School (AHSS).
Bottomley's record in the education sector as a teacher and trustee spans 53 years.
Born in 1944, Bottomley grew up in the Oshawa area, spent some time in St. Catharines and then a year at teacher's college in Toronto.
Bottomley recalls that in 1969, numerous school boards were looking for teachers and their recruiting efforts took them to a job fair at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto.
“It was like a meat market there,” said Bottomley.
“Everyone was looking for teachers. I ended up with five job offers.”
In the end, Bottomley accepted a teaching position at AHSS because his then wife was offered a high-paying job with the former East Parry Sound Board of Education in the special needs department.
Bottomley's 31-year teaching career was all at AHSS and he taught students in all grades from the basics to the advanced level.
He taught history, which he loves, as well as geography, economics and some political science.
Bottomley was also very good at math and told The Nugget he made the mistake of mentioning this to school officials.
“I never should have told anyone because one year they were short a math teacher, put me in the class and I could never get out of it,” he said.
Although AHSS has been replaced by a newer building and the former school sits derelict in Strong Township, Bottomley says when he started in 1969 the school was relatively new.
And it was big since it needed to accommodate students from the surrounding communities.
Bottomley says the school was built to teach about 1,000 students and during the early years AHSS had students come in not only from the Sundridge region and South River, but also from Powassan, Callander and Port Loring.
Then when the high school in Burk's Falls closed, students from that area in addition to students from the Novar and Magnetawan region enrolled at AHSS.
Bottomley said that necessitated putting an addition to AHSS.
“And at times that was hell because at one point only a piece of Plexiglas was all that divided my classes with construction crews,” Bottomley said.
On top of the addition, about a dozen portables were located on the AHSS grounds and at its height the school was home to 1,490 students.
Bottomley says he had a great career as a teacher and spoke highly of his students saying they “were great kids.''
But there were also the troublemakers and sometimes their victims were supply teachers.
Bottomley had a soft spot for supply teachers because they always faced a tough job coming into a classroom full of students they knew nothing about.
“I would tell my students you could do to me what you want because I'll get even,” Bottomley said.
“But when I was going to be away I would tell them not to give a hard time to these (supply teachers) coming in and trying to follow my lead. I gotta say some of those supply teachers got banged up.”
In 2000 when Bottomley retired as a teacher, that was going to be the end.
But he said the teachers’ federation came calling asking if he would run as a trustee which he did that same year and served his first three-year term.
Bottomley was never a fan of former premier Mike Harris' project to create super school boards which saw the English public school boards in Nipissing and Parry Sound Districts merge into one large board.
“I thought it was stupid,” he said.
“The higher costs more than offset any savings.”
Bottomley said at the time teachers in Nipissing were earning more than their Parry Sound counterparts and in the case of the Education Assistants, the difference was $4 to $5 an hour.
“When the boards merged you had a problem,” he said.
“You can't take people's wages down so all the other wages went up.”
Bottomley adds the super school boards resulted in transportation issues for students and made them more vulnerable to weather cancellations and also longer periods on school buses.
Bottomley has no regrets as a teacher or trustee over the decades.
But if there is one area he wishes where there could have had more oversight it's how to separate good teachers from the bad ones.
“I would have liked to see more rigorous examinations of teachers,” he said.
“If you're not a good teacher, get the hell out because there are a lot of good people who would be excellent teachers. I don't like it that there are some really bad teachers that make a career of doing nothing.”
Bottomley said as a trustee he could occasionally sit in on classrooms especially at the elementary schools “and saw which teachers connected with students and those that didn’t.”
His philosophy is if you can't connect with students then they are not likely going to learn from you and the individual isn't doing much good for the young people.
But this one issue aside, Bottomley has enjoyed his 53 years in education and he also got to learn more about the communities in the area as a trustee.
He has many good memories and one involved being at the opening of White Woods Public School in Sturgeon Falls.
During the opening, he happened to be looking at the junior and senior kindergarten students.
“What I saw was this little army of kids going hand in hand singing in French to an assembly,” he said. “I thought that was beautiful.”
Bottomley remarried in 1978, has three adult children and four grandchildren with two more on the way.
He turns 78 this December but he won't be idle.
Earlier this year he helped create a climate action group in Almaguin that began a drive to get the town halls in the Highlands to switch their vehicles to electric as the opportunity arises and to get municipal buildings off natural gas heating.
Bottomley says being part of this group is going to keep him very busy.
Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget