‘Resegregation of Jefferson County’ Forum on School Breakaway Case Calls for Legal Changes

Panelists Margaret Beard, left, Dr. Yvette Richardson, former Judge U. W. Clemon and moderator Art Franklin of CBS 42 during the Resegregation of Jefferson County forum. (Source: Jackie Romine Walburn)

Calling for changes to state law governing a city’s ability to create its own school system, opponents of Gardendale’s breakaway effort say the issue isn’t simply about black and white, but a dilution of education resources and limitations on choices and chances for students.

“We’re not picking on Gardendale. We’re just trying to stop this train,” said Margaret Z. Beard, president of the Jefferson County Retired Teachers’ Association, one of the panelists at a Tuesday night Call to Action Forum at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church.

The north Jefferson County town of Gardendale’s effort to break away and form a new municipal system, which began five years ago and is now pending in the federal courts, was at the center of the discussion at the forum, titled “The Resegregation of Jefferson County.”

Pointing to the formation of separate school systems over the decades in Jefferson County, panelist Dr. Yvette Richardson, a member of the state board of education, said, “The state money moves with the students. It means fewer resources and more duplication. The law needs to be changed.”

A petition circulated at the forum calls for an amendment to the Code of Alabama “to change from 5,000 to 25,000 the population a municipality must have before control of schools … shall be vested in a city board of education.”

Forum panelist U.W. Clemon, retired chief judge of the U.S. District Court and Alabama’s first black federal judge, offered a history lesson in desegregation law.

“The constitution does not require racial balance,” he said. “It requires that segregated schools be desegregated – where there are no black or white schools, but schools.”

Clemon is one of the attorneys for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is opposing the separation of Gardendale schools and its takeover of the brick and mortar schools in the city from the Jefferson County Board of Education.

Desegregated by the Courts

A federal case from more than 50 years ago that ordered county schools to desegregate, Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education, still governs the county system, which has yet to attain “unitary status,” the term that means the system is at long last legally desegregated.

It’s that case that allowed the NAACP, Jefferson County Schools and the U.S. Department of Justice to force the Gardendale case to be taken out of state courts, with federal courts asserting jurisdiction.

In April 2017, U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala issued a ruling that attempted a compromise, of sorts. She ruled that the Gardendale Board of Education could take control of the two elementary schools within city limits, and Jefferson County could retain Bragg Middle and Gardendale High schools for up to three years while the courts judge how well the city operates the elementary schools.

Both Gardendale and the NAACP have appealed Haikala’s ruling, saying she should have made an all-or-nothing decision.

The Gardendale case is now in the hands of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. A hearing has been set for Dec. 14

Pushing for Legal Changes

The forum was sponsored by the Birmingham alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and moderated by Art Franklin of CBS 42. Joining in the discussion were Alabama lawmakers Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison and Rep. Merika Coleman, both D-Birmingham.

Alabama state Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, left, and state Rep. Merika Coleman urge citizens to be involved and informed. (Source: Jackie Romine Walburn)

The Jefferson County legislators plan to push for the code changes outlined in the petition. They may also target the addition of a financial component to the updated code, so that a new school system would be required to have sufficient size and financial resources.

Separating school systems into smaller units, Coleman-Madison said, “Is like gerrymandering, in a way. The new school system can exclude students from a school that was built to serve them,” she said.

She and others referred to the Gardendale High School, which opened in 2010 to serve county students, including those in the majority black North Smithfield Manor community, who do not live in Gardendale and potentially would be excluded from attending Gardendale schools.

Coleman reminded the audience that 2018 is election year in Alabama. Referring to a two-page “how to lobby your legislature” handout, the lawmaker urged those in attendance to take action.

“We need you to remind legislators that the power is not with them but with you.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that a hearing date has been set on the appeal of the Gardendale case.