A federal judge has granted a mostly white town in Alabama permission to secede from a racially mixed county school district and start its own system—even though she concluded that race was the main motivation for the split.
Civil rights lawyers and advocates for racially mixed schools fear the ruling—should it stand—strikes another blow to decades-long efforts to desegregate schools in the South.
But the judge’s decision has buoyed residents in Gardendale, where city leaders want to take control of their schools and tax dollars to establish their own K-12 system. A Birmingham suburb, Gardendale has been part of the 36,000-student Jefferson County school district.
The Jefferson County system—and lawyers representing the black families opposed to the split—argue that the decision could lead to resegregation of a district with a history of intentionally separating white and black students.
“A desire to control the racial demographics of the four public schools in the city of Gardendale and the racial demographics of the city itself motivated the grassroots effort to separate and to eliminate from the Gardendale school zone black students whom Jefferson County transports to Gardendale schools,” Judge Madeline Haikala wrote in her ruling.
While lawyers in the case plan to appeal, advocates for school integration believe the decision could have ramifications well beyond the district. They fear that the win for Gardendale could trigger a domino effect of mostly white municipalities pushing to separate from racially integrated school systems.
“If the decision stands, then the floodgate is open. It has already been substantially cracked,” said U.W. Clemon, who, along with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, represents black families from Jefferson County in the case.
A Confusing Decision
Clemon, who was the state’s first African-American federal judge, applauded Haikala’s clear statement that race was at the root of the separation movement. That also made her ruling confounding. The district has been under a federal desegregation order for more than 40 years.
While acknowledging the role race played, Judge Haikala also wrote that she wanted to be fair to Gardendale residents “who support a municipal separation for reasons that have nothing to do with race.”
“All parents want the best possible education for their children, and there is nothing inherently wrong with preferring a small local district to a large county district,” she wrote.
Ten miles north of majority-black Birmingham, Gardendale—nearly 90 percent white—has pushed for almost five years to create its own district. It formed a school board in 2014 and hired a superintendent that same year. In the Jefferson County district—Alabama’s second largest—nearly half of students are black.
“We know that the community is anxious and ready to achieve its goal of a locally led public school system,” Gardendale school board President Chris Segroves wrote in a statement after the ruling.
Segroves did not reply to emails and phone calls seeking comment. Education Week could not immediately reach Superintendent Patrick Martin for comment.
As part of the proposed break, Gardendale would continue taking students from the predominantly black communities that neighbor it but would not allow student transfers from other parts of the county.
Residents have maintained that local control, not racial separation, is their goal. But the phrase “local control” can be coded language used to conceal true intent, said John Petrovic, an education professor at the University of Alabama.
“I would suspect that it’s a belief that an increasing number of minorities will lower the quality of the school, that it will affect the achievement of students,” Petrovic said.
Weighing Local Control?
But residents’ concerns about local control shouldn’t be easily dismissed, said David Armor, a professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who has testified as an expert witness against mandatory busing in school desegregation cases.
“It’s a strong motivating factor, particularly if you feel your community is not being addressed by the larger school district,” Armor said. “I’ve been in many, many Southern school districts, and [race] is not as major a consideration today as it was in the 1960s and ‘70s.”
A report released last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that roughly 1 in 6 schools is racially or socioeconomically isolated, meaning that 75 percent or more of students are of the same racial or socioeconomic class.
“A growing percentage of kids in highly segregated and racially and economically isolated contexts cannot be good for the country. It can’t be,” said Kent McGuire, the president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation, an Atlanta-based organization that advocates for public education in the South.
“When you’re using the public’s money, you have an obligation to do things that are in the public interest. It’s not in the public interest arguably to create schools that are racially and economically segregated.”
The Gardendale school board wants control of all schools in the city, including Gardendale High School and its state-of-the-art career- and technical-education center that serves students from the entire county. As it now stands, Gardendale would have to pay Jefferson County more than $50 million as part of the separation agreement.
“We believe that having local control over the city’s schools will give the community a sense of pride and ownership,” a statement on the district website reads.
A status conference in the case is coming up, and the Gardendale and Jefferson County superintendents are planning for a transition.
“This isn’t a situation that is only indicative of the state of Alabama. It’s happening all over the United States,” Jefferson County Superintendent Craig Pouncey said. “To insist upon a society that ensures the proper desegregation for the sake of equal opportunities and to ensure that all people are treated exactly the same, that’s a hard thing to legislate.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2017 edition of Education Week as Mostly White Town Can Leave Diverse District, Court Says