Gardendale City Schools
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Appeals court says Alabama city can't secede from county school district

Feb. 15, 2018
Judges cite evidence that Gardendale, Ala., has racial motives for seeking to separate from Jefferson County school system.

A federal appeals court has blocked the city of Gardendale, Ala., from forming its own school system because racial motives were involved in the attempt to split from the Jefferson County district. reports that a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ordered U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Haikala to rescind the part of her 2017 order that gave Gardendale permission to secede over a three-year period from Jefferson County schools and form its own district.

Circuit Judge William Pryor, a former Alabama Attorney General, wrote the opinion.

"The district court (Haikala) found that the Gardendale Board acted with a discriminatory purpose to exclude black children from the proposed school system and, alternatively, that the secession of the Gardendale Board would impede the efforts of the Jefferson County Board to fulfill its desegregation obligations," the opinion states. "Despite these findings, the district court devised and permitted a partial secession that neither party requested.

"We conclude that the district court committed no clear error in its findings of a discriminatory purpose and of impeding the desegregation of the Jefferson County schools, but that it abused its discretion when it...allowed a partial secession.

[Read the entire opinion from the Court of Appeals

Gardendale school officials say they will appeal. They deny that the idea for creating a separate school system was racially motived.

"The Gardendale Board of Education is deeply grieved and disappointed by the opinion of the three-judge panel refusing to allow us to operate our own city schools in Gardendale," says Michael Hogue, President of the Gardendale schools board. "We believe our actions have always reflected only our desire to form a new, welcoming, and inclusive school system to help schoolchildren and parents succeed, and we will continue to fight to achieve this by seeking further review in the federal courts."

The 11th Circuit judges said Gardendale is free to come up with a more acceptable proposal for creating a city school district.

"If the Gardendale Board, for permissible purposes in the future, satisfies its burden to develop a secession plan that will not impede the desegregation efforts of the Jefferson County Board, then the district court may not prohibit the secession," the opinion states. "We do not belittle the 'need that is strongly felt in our society' to have '[d]irect control over decisions vitally affecting the education of one's children,'" according to the ruling that cites a previous case. "Indeed, the "local autonomy of school districts is a vital national tradition,'" the opinion states, quoting another case.

Haikala ruled on April 24, 2017, that despite finding some Gardendale residents had racial motives for splitting off from the Jefferson County system, she would allow the city to form its own school system under certain conditions. Those conditions included appointing an African American to the school board, forming a plan on how it would avoid discrimination, paying the county for the high school (potentially more than $50 million), and operating two elementary schools for two years before being allowed to also operate the middle school and high school.

Attorneys for black school children had appealed the lower court ruling to the 11th Circuit.

"We have long maintained that Gardendale's attempt to form its own school district was specifically designed to exclude black schoolchildren," says Sam Spital, director of litigation the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. "Ultimately, this separation would have created a district significantly whiter than the county as a whole, forcing some students to attend more racially segregated schools.Today's ruling was the only logical conclusion following a district court's direct acknowledgment that racial discrimination was a motivating factor in the City's plans to secede."

Gardendale residents voted in 2013 for a school tax to fund a school system, and formed a school board and hired a superintendent in 2014. But it has had no students, teachers or schools. 

The Jefferson County district had argued that Gardendale's secession would affect its ability to end court supervision of its desegregation efforts. A separate Gardendale district would take away the schools Jefferson County had built in that city. Students who didn't live in the city would have had to be reassigned to other county schools, disrupting the racial balance of its system.

"We were pleased with the 11th Circuit's review and opnion of the secession plan that Gardendale attempted to pass," says Craig Pouncey, superintendent of Jefferson County Schools. "For the communities subjected to the turmoil the past four years, it's time to come together and work for the continued improvement that we've made the past four years."

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