In Alabama Case, Desegregation History Defeats District’s Secession Effort

By Mark Walsh — February 14, 2018 5 min read
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This week’s federal appeals court decision rejecting a predominantly white Alabama community’s effort to secede from a larger, more racially diverse county school district was a case of desegregation history triumphing over a purported effort to restore “local control.”

In Education Week‘s District Dossier blog, Corey Mitchell covers the Feb. 13 decision by a panel of the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Stout v. Gardendale City Board of Education.

Since I have also written about this widely watched case at various points in the past, I thought I would add a few observations about the 11th Circuit decision.

This case has attracted nationwide attention for several reasons. For one, it is an example of several around the country where smaller communities, often predominantly white, are trying to (or have been able to) secede, splinter, or tear away from a larger, racially diverse school district.

Secondly, the ruling below by a federal district judge in this case was a curious one. Judge Madeline H. Haikala of Birmingham had ruled last April that race was a motivating factor in the Gardendale school district’s effort to secede from the Jefferson County, Ala., school system. Nevertheless, the judge held that Gardendale could take control of the two elementary schools within its limits right away and could work toward taking control of the middle school and high school in three years.

The ruling was stayed, and Gardendale, which created its own board of education in a separate move that is not under challenge, has not taken over any schools from the Jefferson County system.

A group of black children represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund appealed that part of Haikala’s decision that would allow Gardendale to start taking over schools. The Gardendale school board cross-appealed, seeking the right to take control of the middle school and high school right away.

In its Feb. 13 decision in the case, the 11th Circuit court panel ruled 3-0 that Haikala did not err in her decision that the Gardendale school board moved to secede from the Jefferson County system with a racially discriminatory purpose.

Judge William H. Pryor Jr., a generally conservative jurist who has been on President Donald Trump’s short list for U.S. Supreme Court openings, went through the racial evidence in some detail, including fliers and other communications by organizers of the secession effort that not-so-subtly suggested that the separate school district would eventually remove nonresident students from Jefferson County, many of them minority group members.

“The Gardendale board and its superintendent devised secession plans that reflect the same desire to control the racial demographics of the public schools as had been expressed by the secession leaders,” Pryor wrote.

The 11th Circuit court also concluded that Haikala did not err when she held that the secession of Gardendale would impede desegregation efforts of the Jefferson County school district.

The desegregation case involving the Jefferson County system was filed in 1965, and the main desegregation plan was ordered in 1971. Pryor made it clear that the Jefferson County system has not been declared unitary, or legally desegregated.

Pryor said that the district court judge provided several valid rationales for her conclusion that the secession of Gardendale would harm desegregation in the Jefferson County system, including that students displaced from the Gardendale schools would attend less racially diverse schools, and that the secession movement communicated “messages of inferiority” to black students.

But it was a different story for Haikala’s order that would allow Gardendale to begin taking over the elementary schools within its limits.

“The district court erred when it ruled that a partial secession could be permitted even though the Gardendale board had not proved a lack of deleterious effects on desegregation,” Pryor wrote.

Pryor made clear that the concept of “splinter districts” seeking to peel away from larger school systems in the context of desegregation is not a new one. In 1972, he pointed out, the Supreme Court ruled in Wright v. Council of the City of Emporia that “a new school district may not be created where its effect would be to impede the process of dismantling a dual system.”

Pryor said the district court judge had erroneously concluded that the Supreme Court has subsequently overruled Wright.

“The finding that a racially discriminatory purpose motivated the Gardendale board ... obliged the district court to deny the motion to secede,” Pryor wrote. “If the motion were denied, black schoolchildren who attend Gardendale schools would continue to benefit from the supervision of the Jefferson County board, which is governed by a federal order to desegregate its schools. When the district court rejected this option in favor of permitting a new board created, in part, for the purpose of racial discrimination to control the educational policy of at least two schools, it abused its discretion.”

Pryor said the 11th Circuit did not mean to suggest that Gardendale “is forever a vassal of the county board,” quoting an earlier decision in the larger case.

“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,” he said.

Quoting from the Wright decision, Pryor said the 11th Circuit panel did not belittle the “need that is strongly felt in our society” to have “direct control over decisions vitally affecting the education of one’s children.”

And, he said, the “local autonomy of school districts is a vital national tradition.”

That last quote comes from the Supreme Court’s 1995 decision in Missouri v. Jenkins, in which the justices curtailed a sweeping remedial order for desegregation of the Kansas City, Mo., school system.

That was the last time the Supreme Court ruled in a desegregation case involving an active court-ordered plan. (The high court’s 2007 decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District involved voluntary racial diversity efforts in two districts that were no longer under court supervision.)

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.