Federal Judge Explains Order Allowing Ala. District to Split Despite Racist Motives

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A federal judge said Tuesday that she won't reconsider her order that would allow Gardendale to form its own school system despite her own findings that racist motives were behind the move.

While she's not backing down, U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Haikala stated in her 49-page order that she wanted to clarify her reasons for setting up a three-year plan for Gardendale to start its own school system.

Haikala stated that she is willing to work with the parties to make practical adjustments to the remedial steps she has ordered for implementation of her plan, "but the Court is not persuaded by the plaintiffs' arguments that outright denial of the Gardendale Board's motion to separate is the appropriate way to resolve this dispute."

A status conference is to be held with Haikala and attorneys involved in the case Wednesday afternoon. Gardendale's split and Haikala's order has gained national media attention as an example of predominantly white cities across the country splitting off from larger systems.

Haikala presides over the 1965 school desegregation case Stout vs. Jefferson County Board of Education. Since a 1971 order in that case, federal judges have continued oversight - including approval of attendance zones - over county schools to make sure racial balances are maintained and no discrimination occurs.

Cities splitting off from the Jefferson County system since the 1971 order have been required to remain under the desegregation order until their system has reached "unitary status" - achieving the goals of becoming a non-discriminatory, desegregated system.

Gardendale will have to jump through some hoops before it can officially split with the county system after a review by Haikala at the end of three years, according to her April 24 order. She emphasized in this week's order that none of those conditions have changed.

Among them are:

• Gardendale will take over the two county elementary schools in its city beginning next school year.

• The new school system will have to develop a desegregation plan approved by all parties.

• One African American resident to the city's board of education within 60 days.

• An interdistrict transfer provision will be placed in the Gardendale desegregation order where parents of students from the predominantly black North Smithfield community outside Gardendale may choose to send their children to a school that the Gardendale Board of Education operates. But they never will be zoned for a school that Gardendale operates.

• Elementary school children living in the predominantly white areas of Mount Olive, Brookside, and Graysville shall remain in their current elementary school zones and shall attend Bragg Middle School and Gardendale High School until the court orders otherwise.

And the judge ordered that if the city wants to fold Gardendale High School - opened in 2010 at a cost of $55 million - into the new system, it will have to pay Jefferson County for it or let it stay in the county system under a different name and build their own school. Jefferson County has said it will cost an estimated $30 million to build a 7-12 grade school in the area to serve students outside Gardendale city limits displaced in the move.

Judge Haikala Clarifies Decision

Haikala wrote that she wanted to clarify her reasons for letting Gardendale split from the Jefferson County school system in light of her findings of racist motives among some city residents:

"In weighing the equities of the situation, the court must consider the message that it will send to these parents if the court denies Gardendale's motion to separate outright. After decades of struggle, if the Court were to say no to these parents and give them the choice of having their African-American children attend a public school system that these parents consider deficient or of moving to a municipal system elsewhere in Jefferson County that will give these parents the control that they desire, what has the struggle done for these parents and their children?

Should the Court disregard their choices? And isn't it possible that these children and their parents will do more to cure the despicable societal malignancy of racism than an order that drives a wedge in a community and creates new resentments?

One of the parents of these children stood before the Court and said that he would do everything in his power to welcome African American students who live outside of the City of Gardendale into schools in a Gardendale system. The Court will hold him to his word and will, by order if necessary, make certain that every parent in Gardendale does the same."

Black plaintiffs in the 1965 Jefferson County school desegregation case last week had said they appreciated the judge's finding that there were racist motives behind Gardendale's attempted split. But they asked her to reconsider the part of her order that would allow the city to form its own system under certain circumstances over a three-year period.

In her order Tuesday the judge stated she doesn't see her plan as a "victory" for Gardendale. "... And the Court is certain that no one in Gardendale sees it as such, given the fact that Gardendale's separation effort was motivated by a desire to eliminate federal supervision under the 1971 desegregation order."

Haikala also issued a warning to Gardendale if it doesn't abide by the desegregation order that will be specifically designed for that city. "The court also will not hesitate to roll back Gardendale's separation if Gardendale does not comply in good faith with the new desegregation order that the Court will enter," she wrote.

Haikala also addressed the 52-year history of the case and how in recent decades legal oversight of it has waned.

The black plaintiffs in the case argue that decades have come and gone, and the Jefferson County Board still operates schools that are racially identifiable, the judge wrote. "On the record in this case, it appears that all of the parties and the Court bear some responsibility for the state of affairs in Jefferson County. Decades of inactivity by all of the parties and the Court have allowed vestiges of de jure segregation to linger unaddressed. Those days are over," she wrote.

Jefferson County future

Haikala also addressed concerns raised by Jefferson County that the split would result in an imbalance of white and black students over all in its system and thereby impeding its ability to reach the goals of the 1971 desegregation order and get out from under federal court supervision.

The evidence that the parties presented at December's trial indicates that in the past few years, Jefferson County has made strides toward fulfilling its obligations under the 1971 desegregation order, Haikala wrote.

"In a nutshell, under the particular circumstances of this case and on the record that the parties presented to the court, the court concluded that the Gardendale Board of Education committed an independent constitutional violation in which the Jefferson County Board of Education played no role," Haikala writes.

Haikala said that her 190-page order tries to "fashion an equitable remedy" that allows Jefferson County to continue its efforts to fully comply with the 1971 desegregation order - and eventually getting out from under federal oversight - while constraining Gardendale and compelling the Gardendale Board of Education to comply with the Fourteenth Amendment (equal protection under the law).

Haikala stated that Jefferson County's potential ability to obtain a release from federal supervision of student assignments and facilities in the near future weighed heavily in the Court's decision.

"If the Court were simply to deny Gardendale's motion to separate and the schools in the Gardendale zone were to remain under the control of the Jefferson County Board, and if, in the next year or two, the Jefferson County Board were able to prove that it is entitled under the law to a termination of supervision as to student assignments and high school facilities, then the Court would relinquish control over all zoning, racial desegregation transfers, and high school facilities in the Jefferson County system, including the Gardendale zone."

"If the Jefferson County Board is entitled under the law to be released from supervision of student assignments and high school facilities, then under equitable principles, the Court cannot withhold that relief and essentially punish the Jefferson County Board and the tens of thousands of families to whom the Jefferson County Board is responsible for a constitutional violation committed by some citizens in Gardendale. Equity will not permit that result," the judge stated.

So to accomplish competing obligations, Haikala states she decided to allow the Gardendale Board to separate partially from Jefferson County under a new desegregation order "that is tailored specifically to the Gardendale Board's constitutional violation," she wrote.

"The remedy provides to the victims of racially discriminatory conduct and to the non-culpable Jefferson County Board of Education and the 33,000 non-Gardendale students whom the Board serves the greatest level of protection that the Court believes is available under the current state of the law by securing for the Jefferson County Board the tools of desegregation that the Jefferson County Board has successfully implemented and providing to the families in North Smithfield the flexibility to choose the public schools that they believe will best serve their children."

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Haikala also cites the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as stating "complete return to local control of school systems is the ultimate goal of all judicial supervision because from the very first, federal supervision of local school systems was intended as a temporary measure to remedy past discrimination, and desegregation decrees are not intended to operate in perpetuity."

Haikala also stuck with her order that says if Gardendale wants to keep the Gardendale High School campus it would have to give money to Jefferson County to build a new high school facility, "one that logically would serve students from Fultondale, Mount Olive, the City of Graysville, the community of Brookside, and the community of North Smithfield."

But if Gardendale doesn't want to pay up, it can build its own high school and the county can continue operating the current high school under a new name, Haikala states.

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