NAACP Plans to Ask Judge to Reconsider Gardendale School Order; Ruling in Case Defies Conventional Procedure

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

U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala has given Gardendale residents the keys to some of the schools in their city even though she asserted that their effort to withdraw from the Jefferson County Schools system is racially motivated.

It’s a contradiction that raised an eyebrow for former federal judge U.W. Clemon, and it’s why he and his colleagues on the legal team for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund plan to file a motion asking Haikala to change her order and halt Gardendale’s takeover.

“It’s called a motion to alter,” Clemon said Wednesday. “In light of her more important finding that the Gardendale school board did not carry its burden of proof that the new school system would not impede the desegregation of the Jefferson County Schools, then there is no legal basis on which to approve the formation of the new system.”

Clemon’s planned motion would be a step short of a formal application to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Haikala’s finding is one of the highlights of a 190-page ruling that reads like a walk through the history of school desegregation in America and into the social media world of Facebook. But her exhaustive historical account and her unorthodox use of social media in the ruling are not her only two departures from traditional judicial practice. Before the end of a hearing on this case in December, Haikala opened up the floor to anyone who wanted to share their opinion, a practice rarely used in any court.

Her thoroughness won compliments from Clemon, even as he disagreed with her ultimate ruling.

The former judge and longtime civil rights lawyer lived part of the history himself. Clemon was a member of the original LDF legal team that filed Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the landmark case that forced county schools to desegregate in 1971. That case still gives the federal courts authority over the Jefferson County Schools, and by extension the effort by Gardendale to separate from JefCoEd and form its own school system.

Clemon then served 29 years as a judge in the Northern District of Alabama, the same court that has jurisdiction in the Stout case; he served as the chief judge in the latter years of his term. Clemon retired in 2009 and rejoined the LDF team for the Gardendale case.


Race as Motivation

The ruling, released Monday evening, is the first judicial decision in the court battle between Gardendale and JefCoEd, which have been at odds ever since the city’s council voted in 2014 to establish its own municipal school system.

On page 138 of her decision, Haikala wrote, “(T)he Court finds that race was a motivating factor in Gardendale’s decision to separate from the Jefferson County public school system. More specifically, a desire to control the racial demographics of the four public schools in the City of Gardendale and the racial demographics of the city itself motivated the grassroots effort to separate and to eliminate from the Gardendale school zone black students whom Jefferson County transports to Gardendale schools under the terms of the desegregation order.”

Nevertheless Haikala is allowing the Gardendale City Schools to break away from JefCoEd and take control of some of the schools located within the city limits, for now, with the possibility that it could claim the other two schools at a later date.

Haikala is allowing Gardendale to assume control of two elementary schools, while the county continues to run Gardendale High and Bragg Middle schools. Haikala said in the decision that, if Gardendale officials can come up with a plan that keeps racial distribution at roughly its current levels, as well as not having adverse effects on the county’s longtime efforts to achieve “unitary status,” she will revisit her decision and possibly allow Gardendale to have control of all four local schools. Unitary status is an official declaration of fully desegregated status, which would end federal court supervision that dates back to 1971.

Dr. Craig Pouncey, Jefferson County school superintendent

The ruling by Haikala, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Barack Obama in 2013, is a dichotomy of sorts. Gardendale attorneys had argued that much of the law and legal precedent that applied to desegregation in Jefferson County was dated and not entirely applicable for several reasons. Haikala refuted that argument and presented an exhaustive history of case law that traces all the way back to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, which set the initial benchmark for desegregation of public schools.

The judge’s historical trail leads through Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the lawsuit filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1965 that led to forced desegregation of local schools six years later, and winds its way through mountains of other cases and rulings all the way to the Gardendale case.

It is highly informative for anyone wanting to know how the federal court system’s efforts to rid segregation from public schools “root and branch” wound its way to the present day. While thorough citations of case law precedent are standard procedure in a written judicial decision, the extensive nature of the historical trail – comprising nearly half of the ruling’s pages – serves to back up Haikala’s assertion that precedent still matters today, Gardendale’s contrary arguments notwithstanding.

On the other hand, Haikala liberally cites exhibits taken from public comments on social media, particularly Facebook, to establish the mindset of those seeking to break off Gardendale’s schools from JefCoEd. Her reasons for citing the posts show an effort to establish the real motives of the organizers of the break; indeed, to avoid problems with hearsay, which is prohibited as evidence in court, Haikala said in a footnote that she had restricted her consideration to posts made by the organizers themselves and no others.

“The Court believes that the statements on the Facebook page reliably convey the sentiments of separation supporters and opponents,” she wrote in footnote 38 on page 83 of the decision.

The historical context of Haikala’s admitting social media into evidence stands in stark contrast to the cases filed in the 1950s and 1960s, when most legal briefs and opinions still were created on typewriters, photocopying was fairly new, telephones had dials and cords, and the idea that computers would be used in almost every home – not to mention being combined with portable wireless phones and carried around in pockets – was still the stuff of science fiction.

“We think that Judge Haikala has done a more comprehensive job of analyzing school desegregation than any other judge in the nation,” Clemon said. “But sometimes it’s necessary for someone to simply point out that the emperor has no clothes … . The remedy that she has ordered is not consistent with the findings she has made. The factual findings are as strong as we would have wanted.”


Facebook Tracks Organizers’ Comments

One Facebook comment from an organizer, cited by Haikala without using a name, talks about efforts to annex the unincorporated Mount Olive community into the city of Gardendale. By state law, municipal school system boundaries are defined by the city limits, and those living outside the city are not eligible to attend. But Mount Olive children have attended schools in Gardendale for many years under JefCoEd management.

The organizer’s Facebook post read in part, “Mount Olive will one day be in Gardendale city limits. As a matter of fact, all of Jefferson County will one day be in the city limits of some municipality.”

Gardendale officials later backed away from a plan to annex the so-called “red zone” in Mount Olive, whose students now are in the Gardendale High feeder pattern, partly due to concerns about the cost of providing city services to areas several miles away from fire and police stations.

In several other places in her decision, Haikala took note of Facebook comments by organizers and others about students from the North Smithfield neighborhood, who have been bused into Gardendale High, Bragg Middle and Fultondale Elementary for years to aid in desegregation, as well as remarks about neighboring Center Point. That city has seen the racial composition of its student and general populations shift dramatically away from whites and toward African Americans, and the schools in that city, which are part of the county system, are now predominantly African American.

Additionally, some Center Point schools already are having students transferred to Gardendale because of poor academic performance and the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind regulations, as the judge noted in her decision.

In particular, Haikala took note of an organizer’s post on the Gardendale City Schools Facebook page, in which he discussed negative reaction by residents to a proposal to permanently allow North Smithfield students to remain in the new Gardendale system.

“I’m not sure I am in full agreement on a permanent inclusion, myself, but I also recognize that there are practical considerations attached to being in Jefferson County, Alabama, where a decades long desegregation lawsuit is in effect,” the beginning of the post read in Haikala’s citation. The organizer went on to recognize “broad powers” exercised over the county schools by the federal courts.

“Some judge at some point was going to have to start looking at those things (in social media), but she does it more forcefully than any judge I’ve seen,” Clemon said.

Court procedure outside of historical norms is not unheard of for Haikala. In fact, one of her more unusual moves came in December during the bench trial proceedings of this case.

On the final day, the judge opened the floor to any and all citizens to come forward and speak their piece about the case. For several hours, they made their way to the podium inside the main courtroom of Birmingham’s Hugo Black Justice Center, telling Haikala why they supported or opposed the breakaway. They came as individuals and grouped in families, and they ranged from housewives to professionals, or both combined; from Gardendale Mayor Stan Hogeland to teenagers; and from merchants to television sports reporters. It was the judicial equivalent of a town hall and a practice rarely used in any court.


Disagreement Over Costs

Despite giving the go-ahead for Gardendale to assume partial control of the city’s schools, one part of Haikala’s ruling may prove to be a large roadblock in the city’s acceptance of her terms. Supporters of the municipal system have long held that a loophole in state law allowed them to take control of the nearly new Gardendale High facility with little or no payment. That’s because the school, and others the county system built at about the same time, such as Mortimer Jordan and Corner, were paid for with debt undertaken by the Jefferson County Commission, not the school system. Had JefCoEd incurred the debt on its own, state law would have required Gardendale to cover that debt.

Haikala turned that argument on its ear, requiring that the city system either pay for JefCoEd to build a facility that would serve the current Gardendale-feeder students who would be displaced by the new system – a cost of about $55 million – or allow JefCoEd to retain the high school.

The latter option could be cheaper for Gardendale. Estimates cited in Haikala’s ruling state that the high school facility would be somewhat under-used as a city school because the student population would be lower. Building a new, smaller high school might cost less.

Haikala summed up her position on payment for the high school facility in the very last sentence of her order: “The treatment of the high school facility also comports with basic notions of fairness.”


Pondering Next Steps

Two days after Haikala’s decision was handed down, legal teams and officials on all sides – Gardendale, JefCoEd, the NAACP and the U.S. Department of Justice – have yet to decide their next move. The complexity and length of the ruling, and a decision that didn’t came down fully on one side or the other, has given all concerned a lot to go through. As such, legal counsel for Gardendale City Schools and JefCoEd declined to comment on the record. Throughout their involvement in this case, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division has routinely declined to comment, except to answer procedural questions.

The Gardendale Board of Education called a special meeting Tuesday night to discuss the ruling with their attorneys in executive session. The county board also held a lengthy executive session at the end of its regularly scheduled monthly meeting on Thursday – a meeting coincidentally held at Fultondale Elementary. The JefCoEd board has long held at least one meeting a year at one of its schools, and this meeting had been scheduled for Fultondale several months prior.

Of pressing concern to Gardendale is also the calendar. The 2017-18 school year has students starting class in early August, which is barely more than three months away. Gardendale school officials have long had a detailed transition plan in place, but it was prepared with the intent of taking over all four local schools, not just two. And should any of the four main parties seek an injunction with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to stay Haikala’s order, all bets are off as far as Gardendale’s transition schedule.

“I think there’s probably going to be some sort of delay,” Clemon said.

Also see:

Judge Haikala Is No Stranger to the Spotlight

Read Hiakala’s full ruling.

Federal Judge Gives Gardendale Control Over City’s Elementary Schools, Lets JeffCo Keep Middle and High Schools for Now.

This story has been updated to correct attribution on the last quote.