Federal Judge Gives Gardendale Control Over City’s Elementary Schools, Lets JeffCo Keep Middle and High Schools for Now.

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The City of Gardendale has tried for more than three years to break away from the Jefferson County Schools to form its own municipal system. The county system has tried equally hard to keep that from happening.

On Monday, a federal judge gave each side some of what they wanted, but maybe not enough to satisfy either.

U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala ruled that the Gardendale City Schools – a system that has existed as only a legal entity for three years, without any schools to operate – may take over Snow Rogers and Gardendale Elementary schools for the 2017-2018 academic year.

But Gardendale High and Bragg Middle schools will stay in the Jefferson County system, for at least the next year “and until this Court orders otherwise,” in the judge’s words.

For now, students from outside the Gardendale city limits who have been zoned for Gardendale schools will continue to attend those schools, with one exception. Elementary school children in the North Smithfield community, a mostly minority neighborhood where students have been bused to Gardendale schools for several years under a desegregation plan, will attend Fultondale Elementary next year. Middle and high school students in the community may opt for either Gardendale or another school. Parents will list each child’s first and second choices, “and Jefferson County shall accommodate, to the extent practical, as many first choices as possible,” the ruling stated.

Haikala’s order gives the Gardendale system 60 days to confer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which represents the original plaintiffs in the case, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice, whose civil rights division intervened on behalf of the original plaintiffs.

“The Court is giving the Gardendale Board of Education an opportunity to demonstrate good faith. To date, the Gardendale Board has fallen short, but it is a new board with limited training,” Haikala’s ruling said. “The Court is giving the Gardendale Board the opportunity to operate elementary schools because skills learned in elementary school prove to be the best predictors of future academic success. This should give Gardendale residents the assurance that they will have local control as their children learn fundamental skills in elementary school.”

If after three years Gardendale establishes a desegregation plan and otherwise satisfies Haikala that it is fit to govern its system, she would then consider turning the rest of the city’s schools over to the new system, she said in the ruling.

JefCoEd officials had two main issues with the proposed new system; how it would affect the county system’s decades-long efforts to achieve “unitary status,” the legal term for ending desegregation fully and removing the federal court’s supervision of the system; and whether Gardendale would pay for the current high school campus, or a replacement, to serve students outside Gardendale city limits. Supporters  maintained that state law — which requires breakaway systems to pay any outstanding debt held by the original system on the schools being transferred — does not apply because the new Gardendale High School was paid for by the Jefferson County Commission, not JefCoEd.

As for the relatively new Gardendale High facility, Haikala’s order outlines two options. The city system may give “an appropriate payment” to the Jefferson County system to take over the facility, with the payment intended to pay for a replacement high school for students outside the city limits. Alternatively, the school would be retained by the county system and given a new name, with Gardendale then forced to build a new high school of its own. A plan for those facilities must be agreed to by all parties to the case within 12 months, the order states.

The order also required that the Gardendale City Council appoint at least one African-American member to the Gardendale Board of Education in the next 60 days. Currently, all five members of the board are white.

The Gardendale school system, if it gets final court approval, would be the eleventh public school system in Jefferson County.

 Partial Text of Haikala’s order in Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education

Having considered the record in its entirety, binding precedent from the United States Supreme Court and the Eleventh Circuit, and the practical implications of the available remedies, the Court orders as follows:

  1. The Court grants in part and denies in part Gardendales motion for separation. For the 2017-2018 school year and until this Court orders otherwise, the Gardendale Board of Education may operate Gardendale Elementary School and Snow Rogers Elementary School. The Jefferson County Board of Education shall take the steps necessary to convey these school facilities to the Gardendale Board of Education so that the Gardendale Board may operate those schools for the 2017-18 academic year. Gardendale Elementary and Snow Rogers Elementary shall be zoned for students residing within the municipal boundaries of the City of Gardendale.
  2. Counsel for the private plaintiffs and for the United States shall confer with counsel for the Gardendale Board of Education and develop and submit to the Court within 60 days a proposed desegregation order tailored to the specific circumstances of the Gardendale City Schools System. The proposed order shall contain provisions relating to interdistrict transfers, and the proposed order shall redraw the lines for Snow Rogers and Gardendale Elementary to address capacity issues at Gardendale Elementary.
  3. Should the Gardendale Board of Education operate Gardendale Elementary and Snow Rogers in good faith compliance with the anticipated desegregation order, then in three years, the Court shall consider a renewed motion for operation of a Gardendale municipal system for grades Kindergarten through 12. During the first 12 months of the three-year period of supervision, the private plaintiffs, the United States, the Jefferson County Board of Education, and the Gardendale Board of Education shall develop a proposed facilities plan for all of the students who currently are zoned for Bragg Middle School and Gardendale High School. That facilities plan must either place the Gardendale High School facility in the Jefferson County system under a new name, or it shall place the high school facility in an anticipated K-12 Gardendale district with an appropriate payment to the Jefferson County Board of Education or the Jefferson County Commission to help fund an alternative high school facility for Jefferson County. The facilities plan shall include provisions for facilities for middle school students, either by reconfiguring existing facilities or building new ones.
  4. Elementary students from the community of North Smithfield shall be zoned for Fultondale Elementary for the 2017-18 academic year. The Jefferson County Board of Education shall allow middle and high school students who reside in North Smithfield to attend a school of their choice for the 2017-18 academic year. Jefferson County shall develop an election form that allows middle and high students from North Smithfield to list their first and second choice for placement, and Jefferson County shall accommodate, to the extent practical, as many first choices as possible. Every middle and high school student shall be given either his/her first or second choice for placement. Jefferson County shall provide transportation for students who reside in North Smithfield. The private plaintiffs, the United States, and the Jefferson County Board of Education shall confer and submit a joint proposal for permanent zoning for students who reside in North Smithfield.
  5. For the 2017-2018 school year and until this Court orders otherwise, the Jefferson County Board of Education shall operate Bragg Middle and Gardendale High School. Students who reside within the municipal limits of the City of Gardendale shall continue to attend Bragg Middle School and Gardendale High School until the Court orders otherwise. Tax proceeds shall follow students from the City of Gardendale who attend Bragg Middle School and Gardendale High School per the terms of the 1971 Stout desegregation order.
  6. Within 60 days, the Gardendale City Council shall appoint at least one African-American resident of the City of Gardendale to the Gardendale Board of Education.
  7. Elementary school children who reside in the community of Mount Olive, the town of Brookside, and the City of Graysville shall remain in their current elementary school zones and shall attend Bragg Middle School and Gardendale High School until the Court orders otherwise. As the parties negotiate the terms for a possible K-12 separation for the Gardendale City School system for the 2020-21 academic year, the parties shall confer with parents from all affected communities.
  8. Within 30 days, the Jefferson County Board, the private plaintiffs, and the United States shall submit a proposed timeline for the discovery necessary for an evaluation of the Jefferson County school district under each of the Green factors.
  9. The Court shall enter all other orders necessary for the implementation of these orders after consulting with the parties.

The Court has fashioned these remedies for a number of reasons. The Court is giving the Gardendale Board of Education an opportunity to demonstrate good faith. To date, the Gardendale Board has fallen short, but it is a new board with limited training. The Court is giving the Gardendale Board the opportunity to operate elementary schools because skills learned in elementary school prove to be the best predictors of future academic success. This should give Gardendale residents the assurance that they will have local control as their children learn fundamental skills in elementary school. Parents of middle school and high school students who reside in Gardendale and are dissatisfied with Bragg Middle School and/or Gardendale High School have available to them the Jefferson County IB Middle School program and the Jefferson County IB High School program. The latter is consistently ranked the best high school program in the State of Alabama. The Court also notes that if parents who reside in the City of Gardendale have a concern about Bragg Middle and/or Gardendale High School, they have a unique opportunity to make that concern heard because the current president of the Jefferson County Board of Education is a Gardendale resident. The facilities plan provision in the Courts order accounts for the significant role that the new Gardendale high school facility plays in Jefferson Countys desegregation efforts. It accounts for the fact that Jefferson County designed and built the facility to serve all high school students in Jefferson County, and Jefferson County has successfully attracted a racially and geographically diverse student body to the school through the countys good faith efforts to comply with the desegregation order. The treatment of the high school facility also comports with basic notions of fairness.

Signed by Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala on 4/24/2017.

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