A federal judge in Alabama has ruled that a city with a predominantly white population may begin separating from a county school district, even though there is evidence that the action is motivated by race.
The Washington Post reports that the ruling could eventually result in Gardendale, a city of about 13,000 outside Birmingham, establishing a public school district separate from the Jefferson County system, where black students outnumber whites.
Backers of secession have asserted that they are seeking local control over schools, not racial segregation. But opponents contend that the separation is deeply tied to race and should not be allowed in a place that has been struggling to desegregate its schools for more than 50 years.
U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Haikala issued a 190-page decision that recounts the decades-long conflict over school desegregation in Jefferson County, including multiple efforts by affluent, majority-white cities to splinter off and form their own school systems.
Alabama law allows cities of more than 5,000 residents can form independent school systems, and Gardendale contends that the federal court should have no say over its separation.
In her ruling, the judge pointed to public comments from some of those seeking to split from the county system who said they viewed it as a way for Gardendale to erect a barrier to black students who have been transferring to schools in the city from elsewhere in the county.
Haikala decided that although she could block the secession, given that it will likely impair the desegregation Jefferson County schools, she would allow it, in part out of concern for black students, who she said would likely bear the blame if she refused.
The Justice Department, which under the Obama administration had opposed the separation, has declined to comment on the ruling.
Under Haikala’s decision, Gardendale may begin operating the two elementary schools within its boundaries—Gardendale and Snow Rogers— beginning with 2017-18.
If the city school district shows good faith in carrying out desegregation efforts over the next three years — including by allowing and paying for transfer students and appointing a black member to the all-white city school board — it may be allowed to take over Bragg Middle and Gardendale High, which are within city boundaries.
Even then, the judge ruled, Gardendale would have to pay Jefferson County for the high school building, which the county district built at a cost of more than $50 million. The high school plays a key role in the county’s integration efforts.