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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