Federal Judge Nixes Plan to Adjust Attendance Zones for Two Elementary Schools in Gardendale

A federal judge has denied a request by Jefferson County Schools to change attendance zones for Gardendale and Snow Rogers elementary schools.

U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala ruled against the request in a hearing Thursday morning. JefCoEd officials wanted to shift the boundaries between the two schools’ zones to move students away from Gardendale Elementary — which has suffered from crowding in recent years — and send them to Snow Rogers Elementary, which has available space.

Earlier this year, Haikala ruled that the two elementary schools could be put under the control of the new Gardendale Board of Education, as part of the city’s long-running effort to break away from JefCoEd and form its own municipal system.

That decision has been appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, asking that it be overturned in either of two directions. Gardendale’s appeal seeks to give full control of all four schools inside the city limits to the new system. A cross-appeal asks to allow the county system to keep control of all of those schools. That motion was filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which represents the original plaintiffs in the decades-old Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education case that enforced racial desegregation in the system.

Haikala indicated her desire to deny the attendance zone adjustment from the outset of the hearing. “I’m inclined to maintain the status quo rather than make these changes,” she said.

The judge listed three reasons for her decision: 1) the JefCoEd proposal doesn’t advance efforts to achieve full desegregation; 2) the changes would incur significant expenses and require “some fancy footwork” to implement before students report to school on Aug. 10; and 3) the “temporary nature” of the requested changes, which might have to be reversed if the Court of Appeals later rules in Gardendale’s favor.

“It doesn’t make sense to redraw zone lines until the 11th Circuit has its say,” Haikala said.

JefCoEd attorney Whit Colvin admitted in court that the county system was asking a lot. “It’s not an ideal situation for us, but we had to kind of take our poison (and make the request),” he said. “Either way. There’s no good solution right now. We sort of did the best we could.”

The Gardendale board had objected to the county system’s adjustment request.

JefCoEd Supt. Craig Pouncey said the system’s request would have affected 118 students if it had been implemented this year.

County school officials had previously discussed with Haikala the possibility of dividing the schools by grades. For instance, all students in grades three through five could be sent to Gardendale Elementary, and those in kindergarten through second grade to Snow Rogers, or vice versa. Aside from solving the crowding issue, that move also would give more racial balance to both schools, helping the system achieve its ultimate goal of unitary status — the official declaration of full desegregation. Currently, Snow Rogers has few minority students, while at Gardendale Elementary a significant percentage of the study body is made up of minority students.


Brookville Elementary Decision

In a separate action, Haikala agreed to allow 15 students attending Brookville Elementary School in Graysville to move on to Bragg Middle School in Gardendale instead of Minor Middle. JefCoEd earlier had notified parents of the students that they would go to Bragg, interpreting wording in a ruling by Haikala to say that although the judge said it wasn’t her intention to require that move.

A Gardendale Board of Education attorney objected to the move, saying that Bragg is already “overutilized.”

Haikala noted that if the 11th Circuit rules in Gardendale’s favor, those students would have to return to the Minor feeder pattern. “It’s a fluid situation,” she said.

There’s no schedule yet for the 11th Circuit to hear the appeals by Gardendale and the NAACP. Because of the appeals, all sides asked to delay Haikala’s original decision to give the city system control of Snow Rogers and Gardendale elementary schools from the upcoming school year to the 2018-19 year.