Gardendale Alabama

Gardendale, Ala., must pay $850,000 in legal fees after losing school district secession case

Jan. 2, 2020
A legal challenge by black schoolchildren stopped the city's attempt to break away from the Jefferson County (Ala.) school system.

The city of Gardendale, Ala., has been ordered to pay nearly $850,000 in legal fees to the lawyers of black schoolchildren who went to court to stop the city from breaking away from the Jefferson County school system.

Al.com reports that U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Haikala has issued a ruling awarding fees to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other lawyers.

Haikala ruled that the awards were warranted because Gardendale acted in bad faith both when it tried to establish the school district and during the litigation.

In 2012, the Gardendale City Council approved a feasibility study of its own school system. Gardendale residents voted in 2013 for a school tax to pay for a separate school system; in 2014, it formed a school board and hired a superintendent. But it had no students, teachers or schools.

The Legal Defense Fund, representing black students, contended that Gardendale’s proposal was racially motivated as an effort to preserve the city’s white majority status—an argument that both Haikala and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found compelling. Gardendale officials argued that race was not a factor in its plan to secede from the Jefferson County district.

Gardendale officials announced in 2018 that they would end their pursuit of a separate school system after the federal appeals court blocked the move, citing evidence of racial motives in the city's efforts.

In her ruling on legal fees, Haikala pointed to messages on social media in which residents said they did not want Gardendale to become Center Point—a city that was predominantly white as late as the 2000 Census that became majority black in the 2010 Census—and that Gardendale decided to include children in the predominantly black Birmingham neighborhood of North Smithfield in the prospective school system only to fulfill county desegregation requirements.

“The messages of racial inferiority from the separation organizers and from the Gardendale Board [of Education] were public and unmistakable," Haikala ruled. "It is enough simply to recognize that in its refusal to speak to parents of class members from North Smithfield, the Gardendale Board treated those students as tokens to be numbered and included in a municipal district only if necessary to achieve a court-ordered racial quota."

Haikala ordered the city to pay nearly $740,000 in legal fees to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and former federal judge U.W. Clemon and an additional $103,000 in expenses to the NAACP and $3,400 in expenses to Clemon.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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