Nearly a decade before Indianapolis adopted Unigov, local officials put forward a proposal for a single school district incorporating all of Marion County. It didn’t go very far.
Public opposition from “suburban” residents strangled the plan in its cradle. Instead of a single school district, Indianapolis got what it has today: 11 separate districts that arguably compete for reputation and students – and often lose on both counts to exurban districts beyond the county line.
According to news accounts from 1961, the year of the countywide school district proposal, thousands of opponents packed two raucous public hearings and made their displeasure known.
“Two women spoke in favor of the one-unit plan,” the Indianapolis Star reported, “but were repeatedly interrupted by hecklers among the suburban opponents as the reorganization committee wound up six hours of public hearings.”
I had assumed that excluding the schools from Unigov, the 1970 merger of Indianapolis and Marion County civil governments, was the decision that fractured the county and fed the overwhelmingly negative perception of Indianapolis Public Schools, opening the door to charter schools and vouchers.
But it turns out a key decision came a bit earlier. By the time Unigov rolled around, it was no wonder local movers and shakers didn’t try to merge school systems. They’d been there, tried to do that.
Harmon Baldwin, a retired Indiana school administrator who was superintendent of schools in Bloomington in the 1980s, called my attention to this history. In 1962, Baldwin became the first superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township on Indianapolis’ west side after it shifted from a township trustee-run district to one governed by a school board.
He wasn’t in Indianapolis for the merger proposal, but he arrived a year later and heard a lot about it.
The impetus for the plan was the 1959 school reorganization law, which prompted a wave of school consolidations across the state. As a result of the law, the number of school districts in Indiana dropped by more than half and the number with fewer than 1,000 students fell by 80 percent.
The law created county school reorganization committees to develop plans for modernizing the local school districts, including consolidating or merging districts where appropriate.
Indianapolis/Marion County didn’t have the same problem as the state’s rural areas: tiny, township-based school districts with too few students to operate efficiently. But the county reorganization committee, after considering several ideas, voted unanimously to propose a single, 130,000-student district on the grounds it would produce equitable education and a fair tax burden.
Indianapolis city school district officials favored the plan, but the suburban districts opposed it. Over 10,000 people signed petitions objecting to the idea, according to the Star. A standing-room-only crowd of 2,000 people attended an initial public hearing on May 18, 1961, at the Indianapolis World War Memorial Auditorium, and another 1,000 showed for a follow-up hearing six days later. Hundreds of people rode to the hearings on school buses owned by the township school districts.
Nearly everyone, apparently, thought merging the districts was a bad idea.
Baldwin’s impression was that opposition was driven primarily by a desire of suburban residents to keep local control of their schools and fear that Indianapolis, with its larger population, would call the shots in a merged school district. “There was the normal rural-urban battle: ‘Indianapolis wants to tell us what to do and we don’t want to be part of it,’” he said.
Indianapolis city schools were about 25 percent nonwhite in 1960, and the other Marion County schools were virtually all white. But Baldwin doesn’t believe maintaining segregated schools was a factor in the opposition. And the Star stories never mention race as an issue.
Of course, this was the pre-civil rights era, when race wasn’t often discussed in polite company – or the pages of a newspaper. So who knows what people were thinking? When Unigov took effect nine years later, the country had been transformed. By then, the Indianapolis Public Schools district was 36 percent black, and school desegregation and busing controversies were routinely in the national news. Merging districts could have been an even harder sell in 1970.
In 1961, the Marion County School Reorganization Committee listened to the opposition and dropped its plan for a county-wide district. According to Baldwin, attorney Lewis Bose, who would later work with a group of lawyers to draft the Unigov legislation, put together a fallback plan.
Two tiny school districts, Woodruff Place and Center Township (outside of Indianapolis), would merge with the city district to create what is now Indianapolis Public Schools. The suburban districts that were still under township control would reorganize and be governed by local school boards.
And that’s where Indianapolis remains today: One city with 11 school districts. The 1961 decision avoided a good deal of controversy. But whether it was in the long-term best interest of the city and its students could make for an interesting debate.
Note: Credit for this post goes to Harmon Baldwin, a walking encyclopedia of Indiana education history and policy information, and to Indianapolis local history expert Libby Cierzniak, who graciously dug up the newspaper stories on which this account is based.