Judge: Mostly White Southern City may Secede from School District Despite Racial Motive

Emma Brown, Washington Post, April 27, 2017

A federal judge’s ruling this week that allows a predominantly white Alabama city to separate from its more diverse school district is stoking new debate about the fate of desegregation initiatives after decades of efforts to promote racial balance in public education.

Judge Madeline Haikala of the U.S. District Court in Birmingham ruled that the city of Gardendale’s effort to break away was motivated by race and sent messages of racial inferiority and exclusion that “assail the dignity of black schoolchildren.”

Judge Madeline Haikala

Judge Madeline Haikala

She also found that Gardendale failed to meet its legal burden to prove that its separation would not hinder desegregation in Jefferson County, which has been struggling to integrate its schools since black parents first sued for an equal education for their children in the 1960s.

Still, Haikala ruled Monday that Gardendale may move forward with the secession, basing her decision in part on sympathy for some parents who want local control over schools and in part on concern for black students caught in the middle. The judge wrote that she feared they would bear the blame if she blocked the city’s bid.

U.W. Clemon, who represents black plaintiffs in the case, said the ruling undermines more than half a century of integration efforts. “If this decision stands, it will have a tremendous adverse impact,” Clemon said.

Other majority-white communities in Jefferson County are already considering setting up their own school systems, said Clemon, who is a retired federal judge.

Haikala’s ruling says to them that “if Gardendale can do it, with its history of racism . . . then any other city would have the right to do what Gardendale has done,” Clemon said.

Backers of secession have said that they are seeking local control over schools, not racial segregation.

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The Justice Department, which under the Obama administration had opposed the separation, declined to comment this week on the ruling.

Gardendale, a bedroom community outside Birmingham, has been pushing for years to leave the predominantly black school system in Jefferson County and form its own small district.

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Haikala decided that although she could opt to block the secession, given that it is likely impair the desegregation of county schools, she would allow it.

Black children from North Smithfield who are bused to Gardendale are in a “Catch-22,” the judge wrote, and without a concerted effort by the city’s leaders are likely to feel unwelcome no matter who runs the city’s schools. Gardendale proposed including North Smithfield students in its new school system only after leaders of the secession effort concluded that doing so was essential to winning court approval. “This is a tragic consequence of the way in which the Gardendale Board attempted to separate,” Haikala wrote.

Under Haikala’s decision, Gardendale may begin operating the two elementary schools within its boundaries this fall. If the city shows good faith in carrying out desegregation efforts at those schools 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 the middle and high schools within its boundaries.

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Under Alabama law, cities of more than 5,000 residents can form independent school systems, and Gardendale had argued that the federal court should have no say over its separation. “Things have changed” since the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions on school segregation, Gardendale argued in a brief, and federal courts must “open their eyes to the condition of the present.”

Haikala forcefully rebutted that argument, writing that Gardendale’s message to black students that they are unwanted has been “unmistakable” and “intolerable.”

“The Court may not turn a blind eye to that message,” the judge wrote.

Pennsylvania State University professor Erica Frankenberg, who studies school segregation, said that the decision by Haikala — who was appointed by President Barack Obama and is relatively new to the Jefferson County case — is a significant departure from previous court decisions that allowed majority-white cities to break away from larger school systems without publicly explaining or grappling with the consequences. And Haikala has clearly signaled that she reserves the right to change course if Gardendale fails to meet its desegregation obligations.

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