Gardendale High School, a fixture in the community, is on Main Street across from Millennium Park. (Source: Robert Carter)
When organizers of an effort to separate Gardendale from the Jefferson County School System began their work, they had no idea it would attract so much attention from national news media — or that much of that attention would be unfavorable to their cause.
The effort to break away and form a new municipal system, which began five years ago and has since landed in the federal courts, has been covered by well-known media such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. The latter aroused the ire of parents of Gardendale High School students when a photographer was allowed to work inside the school. Additionally, reporters from online outlets that specialize in educational issues, racial issues or both have also focused on the city and the separation effort.
Last month alone, two separate stories were published nationally about the Gardendale breakaway, and both cast the effort as part of a larger issue of resegregation in urban public schools. The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy piece in a special edition called “The Education Issue,” which appeared Sept. 6. Headlined “The Resegregation of Jefferson County,” the story by Nikole Hannah-Jones tells about the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund’s attempt to thwart the formation of the Gardendale system.
That same day, another story about the Gardendale case was published by The Hechinger Report, a non-profit organization that takes its name from former Times education editor Fred Hechinger and has the motto “Covering Innovation and Inequality in Education.”
Reporter Emmanuel Felton attended a December trial in U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala’s court held to determine whether Gardendale could create its own school system. He focused his story on the North Smithfield Manor neighborhood just north of Birmingham. That neighborhood, the population of which is almost entirely African-American, has long sent its children to JefCoEd schools in Gardendale and Fultondale as part of court-ordered desegregation plans.
The case in which a judge ordered county schools to desegregate, Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education, dates back more than half a century but 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, JefCoEd 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, 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 JefCoEd 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.
In the Hechinger Report story, Felton wrote that many school districts formed across the country by splintering off from larger districts. But the ongoing Stout case allows the federal courts to intervene in Jefferson County’s schools in a way they could not in most other situations.
The Hechinger Report story was widely republished in several print and online outlets, including The Nation magazine. Most of those outlets take an editorial position that is on the liberal-progressive side of the political spectrum, or they explicitly cater to a left-wing audience. Nearly all of these stories have referred to the breakaway effort by using some form of the word “secession.” While grammatically accurate, it’s a word that has historical connotations that date back to the Civil War.
In contrast, residents of Gardendale historically have voted for very conservative candidates and issues for many years. And many of those residents have taken issue, sometimes vocally, with the coverage by out-of-town media. Some of their anger was documented in the Hechinger story itself, where Felton recorded the public comments of residents who attended a hearing at Gardendale City Hall. The story quotes Chris Orazine, described by Felton as “a white Gardendale dad:” “The media has twisted and turned this issue to make everyone think this is about race … . The people who live in this community and love this community know that nothing is further from the truth. But the fact is that damage has been done.”
A National Insult
The tone of the latest articles came as no surprise to Dr. Michael Hogue, an associate dean of the Center for Faith and Health at Samford University’s McWhorter School of Pharmacy. He currently serves as the president of the Gardendale Board of Education, a board that as yet has no schools to operate.
“Most people in Gardendale consider it (national media coverage) fairly insulting, because I think most of the citizens of Gardendale see themselves as open and inclusive and welcoming, and I know the community’s been that way since I moved here in 2005”, Hogue said. “Those articles were published by fairly liberal publications which have an agenda, and they don’t have a reputation for being well-balanced.”
“Across the political spectrum, people felt as though the (New York Times) article was a very gross mischaracterization of the citizens and our community,” Hogue added. “I think the national media has been a bit unfair and unbalanced.”
When a New York Times photographer appeared at Gardendale High to shoot photos that would accompany the magazine story, word spread quickly to parents, who then complained to administrators. They also complained to members of the Gardendale board, which filed a written complaint with Jefferson County Board of Education President Oscar Mann, who is a longtime Gardendale resident.
Hogue was confronted later that day by parents at the high school football team’s annual “Meet the Rockets” pre-season event. He said those parents were “quite upset.”
“There were a lot of rumors about what the photographer did or didn’t engage in, but I can’t substantiate that independently. But there were a lot of concerns from parents,” he said.
Parents were notified via a mass phone message the following Sunday by principal Mary Beth Blankenship that the Times had been asked not to use the photos taken at the school.
The permission to work at the high school was granted not by the school’s principal, as is the normal JefCoEd policy, but directly from Superintendent Craig Pouncey, who has doggedly fought Gardendale’s separation effort because he believes the split would further harm his system’s decades-long work to get out from under federal supervision.
“The article was originally supposed to be focused on the national problem (of resegregation),” Pouncey said. “We honored the parents’ concerns and called the author. We shared with him the pictures of the students whose parents called us, and asked that they not be included in any pictures, and they didn’t.”
One photo of students at the front of the high school was used, a photo that Pouncey was not aware of before publication. “We told them they didn’t need to do that again,” he said.
In the Hands of the Court
While Gardendale residents may take issue with the national news coverage, Mayor Stan Hogeland — who’s been involved in the breakaway effort since the beginning, when he was president of the City Council — said it has not hurt the city’s commerce. Gardendale is experiencing a significant upturn in business expansion, capped by a new freestanding emergency room that is being built there by UAB. That development, just yards from three of the city’s schools, is also spurring additional commercial development.
“The people that we are dealing with know what Gardendale is like and what its people are like, and that we’re not racist,” Hogeland said. “They know who we are. This (coverage) hasn’t had any effect on our work to bring in more business. I don’t like much of what I’ve read, but we just keep going.”
Meanwhile, the court case goes on, now in the hands of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Both the city and the NAACP have filed their cross-appeal briefs. Gardendale has also had an amicus brief, or “friend of the court” brief, filed on its behalf by the Southeastern Legal Foundation of Georgia, which describes itself as a law firm and policy center that “advocates limited government, individual economic freedom, and the free enterprise system.”
The amicus brief also includes arguments from the Center for Economic Opportunity, a think tank that describes its vision as, “America has always been a multiethnic and multiracial nation, and it is becoming even more so. This makes it imperative that our national policies not divide our people according to skin color and national origin.”
JefCoEd attorneys requested more time to file a response brief that would rebut arguments by Gardendale, after which the NAACP will also file response briefs. The city will get the last word with a brief that counters those responses. The appeals court has granted expedited status to the case, but no date has yet been set for an oral hearing before a three-judge panel. The court may bypass such a hearing and issue a ruling on its own, though attorneys on all sides of the case don’t expect that to happen. So far, the Department of Justice, which sided with JefCoEd and the NAACP in the initial trial, has not taken any action in the appeal process.