1960s consolidations transformed Indiana schools

Education in Indiana went through a huge transformation around 50 years ago, when a wave of school consolidations dramatically reduced the number of small school districts. With the Indiana Chamber of Commerce pushing for more mergers, now is a good to time to revisit that history.

The impetus was the Indiana School Reorganization Act of 1959, which called for each county to develop and implement a reorganization plan. The effort reduced the number of school districts from 966 to 402. Districts with fewer than 1,000 students fell from 801 to 156.

Myers Grade School

Myers Grade School in Cannelton. Cannelton is one of the smallest districts in Indiana with about 260 students in grades K-12.

“It was a remarkable change,” said longtime Indiana school administrator Harmon Baldwin, who was one of many local decision-makers in the school reorganization process.

Some school districts reorganized earlier, paving the way for a statewide law. Baldwin credited Howard County with the first modern-day consolidation in the 1940s. In Marion County, township districts built new, modern high schools and moved to being governed by school boards rather than township trustees. But they rejected merging with Indianapolis city schools.

With the 1959 law, a state school reorganization commission oversaw the county efforts but didn’t dictate local plans. J.B. “Heavy” Kohlmeyer, a Purdue agriculture economics professor, led the commission and used his considerable political skills to prod the local panels to act.

“The American High School Today,” an influential report by retired Harvard president James B. Conant, was published in 1959 and reinforced the push for consolidation. Conant argued that modern high schools needed to be large enough to have 100 students in each class.

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1961 decisions shaped Indy school districts

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.

Indianapolis World War Memorial, where 3,000 people showed up to oppose a school merger plan in 1961.

Indianapolis World War Memorial, where 3,000 people showed up to oppose a school merger plan in 1961.

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.

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