The city of Gardendale has waved the white flag.
City leaders have decided not to appeal a ruling by the 11th U.S. District Court of Appeals that denied their effort to break away from the Jefferson County Schools and form their own municipal school system.
The end to the four-year battle came when Gardendale Mayor Stan Hogeland, one of the original proponents of the system, and Gardendale Board of Education President Michael Hogue notified JefCoEd by letter Wednesday that they were not going to continue the fight for a separate school system.
JefCoEd Superintendent Craig Pouncey confirmed the notification Wednesday night.
“We received a letter late this afternoon from Mayor Hogeland and President Hogue that notified the Jefferson County Board of Education that they intend to submit to the council their notification that they will not pursue an appeal,” Pouncey said.
Hogeland said there were several factors that led to their decision.
“The biggest determining factor was the ruling we received from the 11th Circuit,” he said. “All of the legal experts truly felt like that was our best chance to win. When that ruling came out so unfavorably to us, a lot of people in town felt like, ‘Hey, enough’s enough.’ … These are not anti-tax people; they are pro-Gardendale City Schools (people) who visited the courtroom of (U.S. District Judge Madeline) Haikala when they poured in arm-in-arm with the board and the city. They said, ‘We were with you and we supported this all along, but we’re tired.’”
The long court fight, which began in state courts but was taken over by federal courts as part of their decades-long jurisdiction over desegregation in the schools, has caused numerous rifts in Gardendale, surrounding communities and the county as a whole – something Hogeland acknowledged by reading a text message he received Wednesday night.
“It only said, ‘Let the healing begin,’” Hogeland said. “And I think that’s the way a lot of people felt. There’s a lot of bridges to mend and fences to tear down. A lot of hurtful things have been said on all sides.”
Objections to the City System
The breakaway had many opponents for various reasons. JefCoEd officials felt that Gardendale was trying to use a legal loophole to essentially get the Gardendale High School facility for nothing. They also feared the breakaway would substantially hinder the county system’s long struggle to achieve “unitary status,” the legal recognition by the federal courts that the system has fully desegregated and no longer needed federal supervision.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund opposed Gardendale because they felt the breakaway effort was racially motivated. They held that supporters wanted to prevent an influx of African-American students, as occurred in neighboring Center Point, and that their motivation violated federal law. As evidence, they cited posts on a Facebook group.
The NAACP initially was backed by the U.S. Department of Justice when the case was at the trial level, but between the trial and the appeal, the department was not as active in its support. During that time, the management of the department changed with the election of President Donald Trump; he replaced Obama Administration appointee Loretta Lynch as attorney general with former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Many residents of neighborhoods just outside the Gardendale city limits opposed the new system, especially those whose children have long been assigned to Gardendale’s schools. Some of the breakaway effort’s initial supporters were among that group, but they later found out that state law confines municipal school systems to the city limits only. Gardendale officials were unwilling to annex a large portion of the adjoining area because of the high cost of providing services to outlying fringes of the proposed annexation. The council even put a moratorium on annexations, except in areas that already were completely surrounded by the city.
Haikala’s original decision recognized a racial motivation for the breakaway, but she still attempted a way for the city to prove it could operate schools to the court’s satisfaction. She ruled that the city board could take over operation of Gardendale and Snow Rogers elementary schools at first, and after the court was satisfied there were no signs of racial issues, they could then take over Bragg Middle and Gardendale High schools.
Both the NAACP and the city immediately appealed to the 11th Circuit. The NAACP argued that the racial motivation precluded any school system operated by the city. The city argued that a partial takeover was not enough and that it should get all four schools from the outset.
A three-judge panel, which included Judge William Pryor of Birmingham (a former Alabama attorney general), heard the appeal arguments in December. Two weeks ago, they ruled in favor of the NAACP, remanding the case back to Haikala with instructions to fully deny the breakaway.
The city had until March 6 to request an en banc hearing before all of the judges in the 11th Circuit, and it had 90 days to ask for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
In the end, Gardendale officials decided to do neither, and the case is over.
Seeking New Ways to Improve Schools
“Our original intent to form our own school system was to improve the education of students in our four schools,” Hogeland said. “We’ve got an opportunity to still do that. We’ve just got to do it in a different way.”
Hogeland said the city could try to improve its own schools by injecting city tax dollars into the city’s schools through JefCoEd, as is done by some neighboring cities. City property owners have been paying 10 mills in ad valorem taxes since 2014 that are earmarked “for educational purposes,” as Hogeland put it. But there’s a possible legal roadblock. A class-action lawsuit was filed last week seeking to either have the 10-mill tax, which has been held in escrow, refunded, or else have the 8.8-mill property tax collected for JefCoEd refunded. Both have been collected since the city school tax was enacted, and primary plaintiff Jay Campbell said in the suit that collecting both taxes is illegal under Alabama law.
That case has not proceeded beyond the initial filing stage. A similar earlier case was dismissed because the appeal process still was going on.
The long battle has taken a personal toll on Hogeland.
“When you work so hard to try to achieve something and you don’t achieve it, there’s disappointment, and I can’t deny that,” the mayor said. “But I also can’t deny that there’s not a sense of relief. This has been hard … it’s been hard on me, hard on my family, I’ve lost friends throughout this process. It’s a very emotional day all-around.”
The Gardendale Board of Education will now wind down its operations, Hogeland said. Superintendent Patrick Martin and at least a part of the staff will stay on until October, because of existing contracts.
Attempts to reach Hogue for comment were unsuccessful Wednesday.
(Correction: The name of the primary plaintiff in a suit regarding the Gardendale school tax has been corrected. It is Jay Campbell, not Jay Jackson.)