Equity & Diversity

Appeals Court Rules Mostly White City Can’t Form Segregated School District

By Corey Mitchell — February 13, 2018 3 min read
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A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the mostly white city of Gardendale, Ala., cannot detach its students from a racially mixed county school system by forming its own district, reversing a lower court decision.

The 11th Circuit U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Haikala must rescind the part of her 2017 order that allowed Gardendale to form its own system.

Last spring, Haikala granted Gardendale permission start its own system, with conditions, despite the fact that she concluded that race was the main motivation for the split. Advocates for racially mixed schools argued that Haikala’s ruling rolled back decades-long efforts to desegregate schools in the South.

Lawyers representing the black families in the 36,000-student Jefferson County system argued that the decision could lead to resegregation of a district with a history of intentionally separating white and black students. In their appeal to the 11th Circuit, the legal team —which included the NAACP Legal Defense Fund —agreed with Haikala’s findings of racial motivation, but disagreed with her giving Gardendale a plan for starting its own system in spite of her conclusion.

“Today’s ruling was the only logical conclusion,” Sam Spital, the legal defense fund’s director of litigation said in a prepared statement. “We commend the federal appeals court for its decision that combat a disturbing re-segregation trends, seen not just in Gardendale, but in cities across the country. We must continue to thwart re-segregation efforts so that students can benefit from co-existing and learning together.”

Since 2000, 47 communities have broken away from their old school districts to form new ones, often creating school systems that are wealthier and less racially diverse, according to a 2017 report from EdBuild, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that focuses on school funding inequity.

The 11th Circuit ruled that Haikala did not err by declaring that racial segregation was behind the push for secession in Glendale, but the panel of judges did conclude she abused her discretion by allowing partial secession anyway.

“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,” the ruling read.

The Jefferson County school board responded to the 11th Circuit ruling in a prepared statement.

“We are reviewing the decision and determining what the best course of action is, as this matter will return to the district court. While we were not appellants, we want to make it clear that during this process, our main concern is how to best educate all children affected by Gardendale’s possible succession,” the statement read. “Regardless of the court’s final decision, we remain focused on continuing to improve education throughout the Jefferson County School District and look forward to a final decision regarding this matter.”

Maintaining that local control, not racial separation, was their goal, Gardendale city leaders have pushed take control of their schools and tax dollars to establish their own K-12 system. Even without schools to call its own, the city formed a school board in 2014 and hired a superintendent that same year.

Education Week could not immediately reach Gardendale schools Superintendent Patrick Martin for comment on the 11th Circuit ruling. Gardendale had also appealed Haikala’s ruling, in part because the city disputed her finding of racial motives.

Here’s a look at the 11th Circuit decision.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.