Judge Stands with Order: Gardendale Can Take Steps Toward Separate School System

Bragg Middle School would remain under county control, at least for now, under court ruling.

A federal district judge has declined to reconsider her ruling two weeks ago that allows Gardendale to break away from the Jefferson County Schools on a limited basis, even though she found that Gardendale’s motives for forming its own municipal school system were racially motivated.

In a 49-page supplemental memorandum opinion issued Tuesday morning, U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala turned down the request by attorneys for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, representing the original plaintiffs in the landmark Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education case. That case resulted in the forced desegregation of county schools nearly half a century ago. The attorneys held that Haikala’s finding of racial motivation did not match up with allowing Gardendale to proceed with its separation.

“The practical result may appear counter-intuitive, and the remedy admittedly is not ideal,” Haikala wrote. “But as the Court stated in the April 24 opinion, this situation is complex, and there are no ideal remedies. Of the available remedial options, the Court selected the option that it believes has the greatest ability to address all of the interests involved.

“The Court believes that the remedy urged by the private plaintiffs—outright denial of Gardendale’s motion to separate—though warranted and effective in the early stages of this desegregation order’s implementation, under the particular circumstances now presented, likely would produce a short-lived victory that ultimately would do more harm than good to Jefferson County’s efforts to comply with the Fourteenth Amendment in the final stages of federal supervision.”

Haikala held a closed-door status conference with parties in the Gardendale case on Wednesday.  On Thursday,   former U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon, now on the legal team arguing the case against Gardendale, said the LDF would file for an appeal in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta sometime next week, and would request that last month’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala be stayed.

That move could delay the city’s takeover of two elementary schools by at least one school year.  If the appeals court grants the stay, “that process would take about nine months to a year,” Clemon said.

Order Tailored to Gardendale 

In her supplemental opinion issued Tuesday, Haikala summed up her original findings by writing, “The Gardendale Board of Education committed an independent constitutional violation in which the Jefferson County Board of Education played no role.” Her order of a partial separation for now, with a path set for the city to take over all four schools in its limits in three years, was “a new desegregation order that is tailored specifically to the Gardendale Board’s constitutional violation.”

Haikala also wrote that if she were to completely deny Gardendale’s attempt to separate, then if JefCoEd were to be declared legally desegregated in terms of student populations and facilities in a year or two (a declaration the county system has sought for several years), the federal courts would have no jurisdiction to intervene if Gardendale tried again to separate after that. State law would then govern a separation effort, she wrote.

“The struggle between the Jefferson County district and the Gardendale district would resume, and, under the circumstances of this case, Alabama law would allow the citizens of Gardendale to take free of charge a $50 million high school facility that the Jefferson County Board built for all of the students in Jefferson County to facilitate desegregation of the district’s high schools,” Haikala wrote, adding that she doesn’t know exactly how long it will be before JefCoEd may be granted “unitary status”  – a legal declaration that the system is desegregated.

The LDF argued that the only remedy to Haikala’s finding of Gardendale’s constitutional violation was to disallow the breakaway entirely, and disagreed with the judge’s “practical considerations” in her initial ruling. But Haikala wrote that she “…is not persuaded by the private plaintiffs’ (LDF’s) arguments concerning those practical considerations.”


Residents’ Emails

Haikala also mentioned that her court had heard complaints from Gardendale residents after the trial was held. “Emails that the Court received from Gardendale residents after the bench trial indicate that Gardendale residents already have made plans to move if the Gardendale Board cannot proceed with its plan to separate,” she wrote. “The Court does not have the power under the law to prevent families from leaving Gardendale and moving to other municipal districts in Jefferson County.”

Haikala also said that students in the North Smithfield community, as well as those outside the Gardendale city limits who currently are zoned to attend its schools, would benefit from attending a new school – either the current Gardendale High facility under a new name, or a new one that would likely replace Fultondale High’s aging facility – which would be both state-of-the-art and more diverse in its student population.

The judge succinctly waved away the city’s original plan. “The April 24 opinion scrapped Gardendale’s separation plan. That plan is defunct,” Haikala wrote.

Haikala also addressed the LDF contention that Gardendale’s separation would greatly hinder JefCoEd efforts to achieve unitary status. She wrote that the hindrance would be diminished because of the age of the Stout case, and the fact that the case had “sat dormant for years” without legal progress toward achieving unitary status. The judge also reminded all parties that the court could dissolve the new Gardendale system if it did not comply with desegregation efforts in a satisfactory manner, just as the court did in a previous attempt by Pleasant Grove to form its own system.

The supplemental opinion notes testimony by an African-American parent and Gardendale resident who supported the separation, adding that the parent said he “would do everything in his power to welcome African-American students who live outside of the City of Gardendale” into the new system. “The Court will hold him to his word and will, by order if necessary, make certain that every parent in Gardendale does the same,” Haikala said.

The judge also criticized all parties for letting the Stout case grow stale over many years without progress toward unitary status. “Those days are over,” Haikala wrote. Still, she lauded JefCoEd in filing annual reports on desegregation progress as a consistent showing of good faith.

Haikala also recognized that her allowance of a partial separation with continued court supervision is not what many Gardendale supporters wanted. “The Court does not view the equitable remedy in this case as a victory for Gardendale, and the Court is certain that no one in Gardendale sees it as such, given the fact that Gardendale’s separation effort was motivated by a desire to eliminate federal supervision under the 1971 desegregation order,” she wrote.

The supplemental opinion was issued by Haikala as a result of the LDF’s request for a hearing on their motion to reconsider, and was an attempt to explain why she ruled on specific points in her April 24 decision. Haikala also left open an opportunity for the LDF to again request a hearing on the motion.