NAACP Asks Judge to Reconsider Allowing Gardendale to Start Its Own School System

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

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has filed a motion that asks U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala to reverse her decision allowing the city of Gardendale to form its own municipal school district.

The motion, which was filed Monday, agrees with Haikala’s finding that the motivation for Gardendale to break away from the Jefferson County Schools is primarily racial. But it argues that the finding contradicts her order to allow the city to take control of two elementary schools in the 2017-18 school year, with the goal of taking over Gardendale High and Bragg Middle schools after three years if racial balance issues are achieved.

The Legal Defense Fund represents the original plaintiffs in the Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education case, in which the federal courts forced the system to desegregate in 1971. That case gives the court jurisdiction over any municipal systems that break away from JefCoEd, including Gardendale’s proposed system.

Gardendale officials began the process of breaking away in 2013. JefCoEd has fought Gardendale almost every step of the way, partly because of the belief that the separation would hurt its own efforts to finally achieve “unitary status” – a legal declaration that the system had, at long last, officially desegregated and no longer was in need of federal supervision.

The county system also has opposed Gardendale’s contention that a loophole in state law would allow it to take over the relatively new Gardendale High campus without payment because JefCoEd holds no debt on the property. The warrants to fund construction of the school were floated by the Jefferson County Commission.

The NAACP has sided with the county schools in the Gardendale matter. To this point, the U.S. Department of Justice also has sided with JefCoEd, although that position was taken during the Obama Administration. The DOJ has had no public comment on the case since the election of President Donald Trump and the subsequent appointment of former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as the new U.S. attorney general.

The NAACP argues several points in Monday’s motion. Among them:

  • The notion that students from the North Smithfield neighborhood, who have been bused into Gardendale for several years as a result of the desegregation plan, would be blamed for the court’s decision in the separation. The motion calls that notion “misplaced,” adding, “It is a sad truth that, from the moment Black students were first assigned to Gardendale High School in 1970 until the present day, many of them have felt unwelcome there.” The motion further states that parents of those students are concerned their children either would not be allowed to attend Gardendale High in three years, or they would be allowed to attend but their parents would have no representation on the Gardendale Board of Education because they live outside city limits and are thereby barred by state law from appointment to the board.
  • The interests of Gardendale residents to control their own local schools are outweighed by JefCoEd’s constitutional mandate to desegregate, including providing equivalent educational facilities and opportunities. Moreover, the NAACP contends that the breakaway would hurt JefCoEd’s ability to replace the aging Fultondale High School with a new facility that might serve some or all students who live outside Gardendale but currently are zoned for the GHS feeder system. Fultondale High, which originally was built as segregated

New Castle High, is described as a “dilapidated vestige of the former dual-system” that should no longer be a high school.

  • The wishes of Gardendale parents to control their own system does not counterbalance “impermissible” effects counter to desegregation, according to previous federal court precedents.
  • The separation would run counter to the interests of students who currently are zoned for Gardendale schools but who live outside the city limits and eventually would be moved to other schools. The communities affected include unincorporated Mount Olive as well as the towns of Brookside and Graysville; the latter towns have since filed to intervene in the court case, arguing against the split.

The motion also cites Haikala’s comment in the order that, “The lesson of history is clear: ‘communities, left to their own devices, re-segregate fairly quickly, in some cases sending the very messages of inferiority that the Supreme Court attempted to address in Brown.’” Brown v. Board of Education is the landmark 1954 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools are unconstitutional.

The LDF also argues that the three-year period established by Haikala’s order does not give Gardendale enough time to properly negotiate and establish desegregation plans. The motion further states that the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in previous rulings, did not give lower courts an option to recognize splinter school systems if desegregation efforts of the parent system were hampered, but instead said they “must not” allow such splits. The LDF cites previous efforts by the city of Pleasant Grove to break away, which were halted by federal courts.

The motion further states, “The push for a separate Gardendale School District has not merely thwarted Jefferson County’s ability to desegregate the county schools, it has also violated the Equal Protection Clause anew.” It then quotes Haikala’s order, which said, “The message from separation organizers and from the Gardendale Board is unmistakable. The Court may not turn a blind eye to that message. The message is intolerable under the Fourteenth Amendment.”

A hearing to consider the motion has not been scheduled.

Retired federal judge U.W. Clemon, who is on the LDF legal team, said in an interview with Birmingham Watch last week that his team had not decided on its next step if Haikala denies its motion to alter. Clemon did say that the next step in the appellate ladder is the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which was split from the original Fifth Circuit in 1981.