Updated – Saying the move was motivated by discriminatory intentions from the start, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down the city of Gardendale’s attempt to break away from Jefferson County schools and form its own municipal system.
In a decision published Tuesday morning by the Atlanta-based court, a three-judge panel found that U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala “committed no clear error in [her] findings of a discriminatory purpose and of impeding the desegregation” of JefCoEd schools. But, the panel found Haikala had erred when she handed down a ruling that allowed a “partial secession” of the city’s two elementary schools, while allowing the middle and high school to stay under county control.
In a press conference held at the Hugo Black U.S. Courthouse in Birmingham, Gardendale officials vowed that they would continue their battle for a municipal system.
“We believe our actions have always reflected only our desire to form a city school system, and we believe the three-judge panel has misunderstood the evidence that was offered to the district court and had misapplied the law,” Gardendale Board of Education President Dr. Michael Hogue said in a prepared statement. “A decision that blames Gardendale for the comments of private citizens on social media, is both contrary to the Constitution and a fundamental miscarriage of justice — and is one we will continue to appeal.”
“This not the result we deserve, and the fight is not over,” Hogue concluded.
Jefferson County Superintendent Craig Pouncey was pleased with the decision and said he hoped it would allow his system to move on with projects that have been on hold because of the case.
“This whole secession issue is something that has divided the community for the last four years,” Pouncey said.
The appeals judges on the panel were Michael Clevenger, Jill Pryor and William Pryor. They voted unanimously for their ruling. William Pryor, a Birmingham resident and former Alabama attorney general, wrote the 61-page decision.
The decision affirms part of Haikala’s ruling, namely the part in which she found discriminatory motives. It also reverses Haikala’s ruling in part, mainly those areas that allow Gardendale to control the elementary schools. And it sends the case back to Haikala’s court “with instructions to deny the motion of the Gardendale Board to secede.”
Gardendale Mayor Stan Hogeland was in Montgomery on Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.
Pouncey said he hoped his system now can make progress on projects that have been on hold because of the uncertainty.
“They (Gardendale supporters) essentially in the last four years have not really collaborated with what we’re doing … . We have a number of improvement plans in place, but we were waiting for the outcome of this order,” Pouncey said.
“Hopefully, at the same time, it will create a sense of closure for those who (live in) communities outside of Gardendale who were fearful that, as a result of the secession effort, they would not any longer be zoned for Gardendale. There was uncertainty as to where they would be zoned to,” Pouncey added.
Among the projects that JefCoEd could move on to would be a replacement for nearby Fultondale High School, the system’s smallest high school in a community that has experienced considerable growth in the past few years. Pouncey and JefCoEd officials have wanted an alternative to the aging facility for several years.
Gardendale officials now have two legal options available. The first is to request an en banc hearing of all the judges in the 11th Circuit, asking them to reverse the decision of the three-judge panel. If that fails, the last resort for the city would be to request a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court. The city has 21 days to make its next move, Hogue said.
The ruling also stated that the city could try again to form a system that does not hinder JefCoEd’s efforts to achieve “unitary status,” which is federal recognition that there are no remaining vestiges of segregation.
“…[W]e do not suggest that the Gardendale Board of Education is ‘forever [a] vassal,’” of the county board, the ruling concluded, citing an earlier ruling in the Stout vs. Jefferson County Board of Education desegregation case. “The authority of the judiciary to intervene in the ‘local autonomy’ of Jefferson County … is tied to the constitutional violation at issue: the earlier de jure segregation of schools. 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 effort by Gardendale residents to break away from JefCoEd officially began in 2014, when the city council voted to establish a board of education. But the first moves in that direction started more than a year beforehand.
The court battle over Gardendale’s attempts to form its own school system has drawn national attention, casting Gardendale as the tip of the spear in a larger issue of resegregation in urban public schools.
While school districts in other areas across the country have formed by splintering off from larger districts, the ongoing Stout case allows the federal courts to intervene in Jefferson County’s schools in a way they could not in most other situations.
Meanwhile, education observers have been watching as the case advances in the court system and will continue to watch, particularly if the case goes to the Supremes.
This story was updated at 7 p.m. Tuesday to include comments from Pouncey and Hogue.