Education Law

Judge permits Alabama city to leave school district despite finding racial motive

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A U.S. district court judge in Birmingham, Alabama, found that the nearby city of Gardendale wants to leave its school district for racial reasons, a message she said “assail[s] the dignity of black schoolchildren.”

Nonetheless, the Washington Post reported Thursday that Judge Madeline Haikala ruled that Gardendale may take steps toward secession, in part because she was concerned that students of color would be blamed if she blocked it. She was also sympathetic to parents who wanted local control, the newspaper said.

Gardendale is about 11 miles north of Birmingham—Alabama’s largest city—and they share a school district that is predominantly African-American.

The Post said that schools in many of Birmingham’s other suburbs have broken away from the district, sharply reducing the tax base while increasing the number of low-income and African-American students, and that Gardendale has been trying to break away for years.

But the Post also said this is the first time a court has examined if there was a racial motivation behind secession, and the first time it answered yes.

The newspaper describes Haikala’s 190-page decision (PDF) as “blistering” in its criticism of secession organizers. She found ample evidence in public statements suggesting that backers of secession saw it as a way to control the number of African-American students from other communities attending local schools—including students from nearby North Smithfield who attend under a desegregation plan. Gardendale has proposed to include North Smithfield in its new district, but only after leaders decided that was essential to getting approval from a court.

“The message from separation organizers and from the Gardendale Board is unmistakable. The Court may not turn a blind eye to that message,” the opinion says. “The message is intolerable under the 14th Amendment.”

Nonetheless, Haikala granted secessionists a partial victory, permitting them to run two elementary schools for Gardendale students only, subject to a desegregation order she also required. A third elementary school must take students from North Smithfield. If there’s good-faith compliance with that order in three years, she said, the court will consider permitting Gardendale to run its own K-12 school system—but the Board of Education must include at least one African-American member.

Attorneys involved in the case who represent African-American students criticized the ruling as undermining integration. U.W. Clemon, an attorney and former federal judge, said other majority-white communities in the county are already considering creating their own districts. He and Monique Lin-Luse of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said their clients may ask the judge to reconsider.

Chris Segroves, president of the Gardendale Board of Education, said the goal is local control, not segregation.

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