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Federal court rules, on grounds of race, that Gardendale can’t secede from county schools

By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

A federal appeals court led by Judge William Pryor, a former Alabama attorney general, ruled Tuesday that the largely white Birmingham suburb of Gardendale cannot secede from the Jefferson County school system to form its own municipal schools.

The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, a three-member court headed by Pryor, considered a conservative judge, found Tuesday that allowing the creation of the municipal school district would be discriminatory and would impede previous efforts, dating back to the 1960s, to desegregate Jefferson County schools. The court identified racial motives in the city’s attempts to split from the county system.

The city of Gardendale is more than 80 percent white and its schools are all more than 70 percent white. Jefferson County schools, while still majority white, has a more diverse student population that is heavily black.

The Gardendale City Schools Board of Education, created in 2014, plans to appeal the decision.

The appeals court decision Tuesday reverses a decision last year by a U.S. District Court that gave Gardendale permission to begin running its own school district. The lower court found race to be a motivating factor behind the split but chose to allow the secession with some restrictions.

The appeals court found the lower court erred and “abused its discretion” when it allowed the system to split despite racial motivations.

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“We affirm the finding that the Gardendale Board acted with a racially discriminatory purpose because that finding is amply supported by this record,” Pryor wrote in his decision. “The finding that a racially discriminatory purpose motivated the GardendaleBoard also obliged the district court to deny the motion to secede.”

The appeals court order compels U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala to rescind the part of her order allowing Gardendale to secede over a three-year period, effectively barring the city from creating its own municipal school system.

The Gardendale School Board has argued that city residents only wanted to improve education and test scores, shrink class sizes and reduce the number of students whose parents do not pay Gardendale property taxes.

“We believe our actions have always reflected only our desire to form a new, welcoming and inclusive school system to help school children and parents succeed,” said Michael Hogue, president of the Gardendale School Board, in a press conference Tuesday. “We will continue to fight to achieve this by seeking further review in the federal courts.”

Jefferson County has been under a desegregation order since 1971 after black parents filed a lawsuit in 1965 in the wake of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision. The order remains in effect to this day and requires federal court approval for municipal splits within the county.

Jefferson County Schools argued that it would have to move students who attend schools within Gardendale city limits to other schools in the county, which could disrupt the racial balance and hinder its efforts to continue desegregation efforts ordered by the federal courts.

The Gardendale City Council, which is all white, voted to form a new school system in 2014. A few months earlier, in 2013, the city had voted to implement a property tax to fund the schools. Even though black applicants applied to be on the board, according to the federal court opinion, the council appointed an all-white school board and hired a white superintendent in 2014.

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The movement to create a city school system began after black students from elsewhere in the county began attending Gardendale-area schools, the court wrote in its opinion.

Hogue said Tuesday that the court had misunderstood the motivations and evidence in the case, vowing to appeal the decision to higher federal courts. The appeals court said it would allow Gardendale to come back to the federal courts with a less discriminatory proposal.

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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