New Districts Reignite School Segregation Debate

Mostly white Alabama city wants its own education system, highlighting a growing national trend.

In late April 2017,  multiple web sites reported that the state of Alabama had just returned the U.S. to the racially divisive pre-Brown v. Board of Education era and once again brought upon the country the specter of legally segregated schools:

Race relations continue to deteriorate under President Trump. It’s become increasingly apparent that his racist, xenophobic rhetoric is doing lasting damage to the country.

The Washington Post reports that an Alabama Judge just ruled that a white city may secede from its racially diverse school district.

The ruling by the Birmingham U.S. District Court allows the city of Gardendale, Alabama to secede from its larger, diverse school district to create its own. Gardendale is 88% white and wealthier than most neighboring cities. Its removal from the district will drastically reduce funding to the public school system.

Although U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Haikala ruled that a predominantly white city could form their own school district (despite her finding that their motivations for initiating the process were racially biased), her decision didn’t actually “bring back segregation.” Her ruling only allows the city of Gardendale, Alabama, to separate from the Jefferson County Schools district if over the course of three years they meet requirements laid out by the court, submit a desegregation plan, and appoint at least one African-American board member. Furthermore, the ruling is being challenged and may not withstand scrutiny from higher courts.

Federal law prohibits institutional segregation in schools, and Haikala is presiding over a 1971 desegregation order resulting from the Stout vs. Jefferson County Board of Education ruling, which requires federal oversight of all Jefferson County Schools to ensure compliance with that order:

Since a 1971 order in that case, federal judges have continued oversight — including approval of attendance zones — over county schools to make sure racial balances are maintained and no discrimination occurs.

Cities splitting off from the Jefferson County system since the 1971 order have been required to remain under the desegregation order until their system has reached “unitary status” — achieving the goals of becoming a non-discriminatory, desegregated system.

Gardendale, like six cities have done before it, wants to form its own school system. Residents voted in November 2013 to form a school system, named a school board, and hired a superintendent.

The Jefferson County system, DOJ, and private plaintiffs in the lawsuit argued against Gardendale forming its own system. Those groups said that Gardendale’s system could prevent the Jefferson County system from achieving unitary status and getting out from under federal oversight.

On 24 April 2017, Judge Haikala (an appointee of President Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama) ruled that she found racial motives for efforts by residents of the predominantly white city of Gardendale to take over four schools within their municipal boundaries and separate from Jefferson County, a diverse public school district. Residents and newly formed Gardendale school district officials actively recruited students from neighboring Mount Olive, which is also predominantly white, and complained about children from racially mixed or majority African-American communities such as Center Point and North Smithfield being bused into schools in Gardendale:

During Gardendale’s separation effort, both words and deeds have communicated messages of inferiority and exclusion. The message cannot be lost on children who live in North Smithfield. Words on a public Facebook page that say to North Smithfield students zoned to Bragg and Gardendale High for nearly 50 years that these are “OUR schools” and you should have been removed from them years ago (Doc. 1132-2, p. 183) communicate plainly to black students from North Smithfield the message that these schools are not yours, and you are not welcome here. The assertion by a separation organizer on the Gardendale Schools Facebook page that given that the Gardendale Board “still is answering to Washington and federal judges,” he could assure Gardendale residents that the Gardendale Board “didn’t just decide to gift a perpetual attendance zone to an area” that would not be paying the Gardendale ad valorem tax “on a whim” and that inclusion of North Smithfield students in the Gardendale system “has the hallmarks” of “a specific, technical, tactical decision” communicates to black middle and high school students from North Smithfield the clear message that Gardendale has required them to be part of the city’s school system only to serve the city’s purposes. The organizer described the inclusion of the children from North Smithfield as “the price” that Gardendale had “to pay to gain approval for separation.” (Doc. 1132-2, p. 8, Dec. 16, 2015, 4:21 a.m.). Under the original separation plan, Gardendale would have eliminated those students from the Gardendale municipal system.

The message is magnified for black children from Center Point. After Center Point’s neighbor to the east, Trussville, separated from the Jefferson County school system, eliminating the most convenient receiving schools for M-to-M [majority-to-minority transfers between schools for racial desegregation purposes] transfer students from Center Point, Jefferson County redirected those children to schools in Gardendale, Center Point’s neighbor to the west. Gardendale citizens’ public rejection of transfer students, particularly those from Center Point (Doc. 1132-2), surely leaves a strong message in the minds of children from Center Point. They must feel that they are unwelcome in predominantly white communities.

And if pictures speak louder than words, then a flyer bearing a photograph of a white student that asks Gardendale voters if they would rather live in an affluent white city or a formerly white city that now is well-integrated or predominantly black communicates an unambiguous message of inferiority. There is no way to downplay or sidestep the harm that such a message conveys. Any arguable ambiguity in the flyer is resolved by blatant public statements from separation organizers that “we don’t want to become” what Center Point has become, and we need separation to provide “better control of the geographic composition of the student body.”

The Gardendale education board wanted to take four schools, Gardendale Elementary, Snow Rogers Elementary, Bragg Middle School and Gardendale High School, which are all predominantly white and would become more so over time, because the Gardendale education board would eventually stop allowing students from outside the newly formed district to attend without paying tuition. The students’ families would also be required to find their own transportation if they wanted to attend a Gardendale school.

According to court documents, Gardendale High is a state-of-the-art school that was built with Jefferson County tax dollars. Although Gardendale planned to fold the high school into their new system at no cost to itself, Jefferson County would have had to pay $55 million to construct a replacement facility. Haikala’s ruling prevents Gardendale from taking the high school without compensating the county or relinquishing the school to the county, under which it would operate with a new name.

Haikala’s ruling initially provides the new district with only two elementary schools and allows secession from Jefferson County only if conditions overseen by the court are met over the course of three years. She held that although their efforts to secede were motivated by race, the rights of parents who simply wanted greater and more local control of their children’s education must be considered, citing concerns that African-American children currently attending school in Gardendale would bear the brunt of resentment from their white peers if they were seen as the cause of a failed separation effort.

Judge Haikala ordered nine conditions be met in order for Gardendale to separate:

1. The Court grants in part and denies in part Gardendale’s motion for separation. For the 2017-2018 school year and until this Court orders otherwise, the Gardendale Board of Education may operate Gardendale Elementary School and Snow Rogers Elementary School. The Jefferson County Board of Education shall take the steps necessary to convey these school facilities to the Gardendale Board of Education so that the Gardendale Board may operate those schools for the 2017-18 academic year. Gardendale Elementary and Snow Rogers Elementary shall be zoned for students residing within the municipal boundaries of the City of Gardendale.

2. Counsel for the private plaintiffs and for the United States shall confer with counsel for the Gardendale Board of Education and develop and submit to the Court within 60 days a proposed desegregation order tailored to the specific circumstances of the Gardendale City Schools System. The proposed order shall contain provisions relating to interdistrict transfers, and the proposed order shall redraw the lines for Snow Rogers and Gardendale Elementary to address capacity issues at Gardendale Elementary.

3. Should the Gardendale Board of Education operate Gardendale Elementary and Snow Rogers in good faith compliance with the anticipated desegregation order, then in three years, the Court shall consider a renewed motion for operation of a Gardendale municipal system for grades Kindergarten through 12. During the first 12 months of the three-year period of supervision, the private plaintiffs, the United States, the Jefferson County Board of Education, and the Gardendale Board of Education shall develop a proposed facilities plan for all of the students who currently are zoned for Bragg Middle School and Gardendale High School. That facilities plan must either place the Gardendale High School facility in the Jefferson County system under a new name, or it shall place the high school facility in an anticipated K-12 Gardendale district with an appropriate payment to the Jefferson County Board of Education or the Jefferson County Commission to help fund an alternative high school facility for Jefferson County. The facilities plan shall include provisions for facilities for middle school students, either by reconfiguring existing facilities or building new ones.

4. Elementary students from the community of North Smithfield shall be zoned for Fultondale Elementary for the 2017-18 academic year. The Jefferson County Board of Education shall allow middle and high school students who reside in North Smithfield to attend a school of their choice for the 2017-18 academic year. Jefferson County shall develop an election form that allows middle and high students from North Smithfield to list their first and second choice for placement, and Jefferson County shall accommodate, to the extent practical, as many first choices as possible. Every middle and high school student shall be given either his/her first or second choice for placement. Jefferson County shall provide transportation for students who reside in North Smithfield. The private plaintiffs, the United States, and the Jefferson County Board of Education shall confer and submit a joint proposal for permanent zoning for students who reside in North Smithfield.

5. For the 2017-2018 school year and until this Court orders otherwise, the Jefferson County Board of Education shall operate Bragg Middle and Gardendale High School. Students who reside within the municipal limits of the City of Gardendale shall continue to attend Bragg Middle School and Gardendale High School until the Court orders otherwise. Tax proceeds shall follow students from the City of Gardendale who attend Bragg Middle School and Gardendale High School per the terms of the 1971 Stoutdesegregation order.

6. Within 60 days, the Gardendale City Council shall appoint at least one African-American resident of the City of Gardendale to the Gardendale Board of Education.

7. Elementary school children who reside in the community of Mount Olive, the town of Brookside, and the City of Graysville shall remain in their current elementary school zones and shall attend Bragg Middle School and Gardendale High School until the Court orders otherwise. As the parties negotiate the terms for a possible K-12 separation for the Gardendale City School system for the 2020-21 academic year, the parties shall confer with parents from all affected communities.

8. Within 30 days, the Jefferson County Board, the private plaintiffs, and the United States shall submit a proposed timeline for the discovery necessary for an evaluation of the Jefferson County school district under each of the Green factors.

9. The Court shall enter all other orders necessary for the implementation of these orders after consulting with the parties.

U.W. Clemon, a retired federal judge who represents African-American plaintiffs in the 52-year-old Stout case filed a motion on 1 May 2017 asking Haikala to reconsider her ruling, arguing that it runs contrary to long-standing efforts bring schools into alignment with the desegregation order. Clemon has also sought an injunction blocking Gardendale from moving forward on the ruling and taking steps to establish a separate school district while the motion is being considered by the court:

The Court’s Order will have the unintended effect of prolonging the litigation, rather than terminating it. Under the terms of the Order, the Parties are now faced with the awesome duty and administrative headache of negotiating two separate interdependent school desegregation decrees, rather than one comprehensive plan designed for stable and long-term desegregation. Further, the Order, should it stand, permits a splinter district under the most inappropriate of circumstances: where there has been a finding of intentional racial discrimination.

For these reasons, the Stout Plaintiffs are constrained to respectfully request, pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 59(e), that this Court reconsider its decision to partially approve the formation of a separate Gardendale school system. Specifically, we urge the Court to amend its April 24th order to enjoin the formation of a separate municipal Gardendale School system until a comprehensive and constitutional desegregation plan for the Jefferson County Board of Education has been adopted, approved, and implemented.

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