What’s Next? Residents Speak out About Next Steps for Gardendale’s New School System

Gardendale Board of Education member Michael Hogue, Superintendent Patrick Martin and board President Chris Segroves during the board’s May 16 meeting.

For residents of Gardendale, most of whom supported the city’s efforts to break away from the Jefferson County Schools and form a new municipal system, the question is, “What’s next?”

Many of those residents filled the council chambers of City Hall on Tuesday night to pose their questions or voice their concerns to the Gardendale Board of Education. It was the board’s first meeting since U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala issued a lengthy ruling that gave the board control of the city’s two elementary schools, with the possibility of taking over the middle and high schools in three years, if racial and financial issues are settled to Haikala’s satisfaction.

That’s far less than the full, immediate control that Gardendale officials sought. Moreover, the ruling also required that the city reimburse JefCoEd for the Gardendale High School property, or else allow the county to keep that facility and build a new school for itself. Gardendale attorneys had argued that Alabama law gave them a loophole to take over GHS for nothing, since JefCoEd issued no debt to pay for it; the debt was instead taken on by Jefferson County government.

With a strong contingent — at least by Gardendale standards — of local police on hand, attendees came one by one to the front to have their say before the board. Most of them implored board members and Superintendent Patrick Martin to keep pressing toward a full breakaway.

Russell Smith, a Gardendale businessman, likened Haikala’s ruling to the Biblical story of King Solomon and the two women who claimed to be the mother of an infant son, after one woman’s son had died. Solomon ordered the baby to be cut in two. “This judge has cut the baby in half and given us one half,” Smith said.

The Race Question

Others criticized the characterization of Gardendale residents as racist by the news media, especially outlets from outside Alabama. Some mentioned The Washington Post, which published several articles about the proposed split. Its story about Haikala’s ruling on April 24 was used by numerous other online news sites, many which have an admitted slant toward liberal or progressive political views. Gardendale voters have traditionally been reliably Republican and staunchly conservative.

“The media has twisted and turned this issue to make everyone thinks this is about race,” Chris Orazine said. “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.”

The Gardendale board did accept the resignation of member Karen White, a former principal of Snow Rogers Elementary, who stepped down to make way for an African-American member to join the board, as required by Haikala’s ruling. The new member will be selected by the Gardendale City Council from among those who apply for the vacancy by May 30.

Orazine asked the board to consider stepping back from taking over the schools so soon, so that others would know that race isn’t the issue. “If Gardendale needs to step away from this for a short time in order to show everyone in this city and county that we are not what we are being labeled as, then I think that’s a good thing,” he said.

The board took up the issue of race in a prepared statement, which was read aloud by member Dick Lee.

“What we must do now is show – not tell – the world that all students are welcome in the Gardendale City Schools. Anyone who disagrees with this principle will be swiftly rebuked,” the statement read in part.

In Haikala’s ruling, she held that the motivation by Gardendale residents to form their own system was racial, but she still allowed the partial takeover to go forward. That’s a case of the court trying to have things both ways, according to retired federal judge U.W. Clemon, who is on the legal team for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in this case. Clemon also was on the LDF team half a century ago when it filed the landmark Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education case, which resulted in desegregation of county schools and to this day gives the court jurisdiction over all major actions by JefCoEd. He told Birmingham Watch last week that the LDF will appeal Haikala’s ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

An Appeal is Coming

That appeal is expected to be filed in the next few days. If the court grants a stay while it decides the fate of the ruling, the takeover by Gardendale could be delayed by at least another year. That would mark the third year that the breakaway has been delayed since Gardendale first started its attempts to split four years ago.

Gardendale board members and Martin did not address the likely appeal directly, but they did acknowledge it tacitly when the board approved the appointment of Dana Hill as its new general counsel. Hill is part of the Birmingham office of Montgomery-based Hill Hill Carter; her biography on the firm’s website indicates that she specializes in education and public school law, with experience in arguing cases before the 11th Circuit.

Not everyone who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting came from within the Gardendale city limits, which would also define the boundaries of the school system. The takeover in the fall would also affect numerous grade-school children who live in the unincorporated area of Mt. Olive, as well as some in the town of Brookside, where children for many years have been zoned to attend schools in Gardendale. Those parents are trying to figure what schools their children will attend in August.

Gardendale resident Stanley Stevenson speaks before the Gardendale Board of Education in a meeting on May 16.

The effort to break Gardendale schools into their own system began in part in Mt. Olive, but by law those households would have to be annexed into the city to automatically be a part of the new system. Gardendale city officials have balked at such a large annexation because of the cost of providing city services to the area, especially when few businesses that generate sales tax revenue are in that area.

Additionally, parents living in the North Smithfield Manor neighborhood are in a quandary about where their children will attend school in the 2017-18 school year. For many years, students in the mostly African-American neighborhood have been bused to Fultondale Elementary for grades K through 5, and then to Bragg Middle and Gardendale High schools after that. Under Haikala’s ruling, those parents are now being given a choice of which JefCoEd schools they want their children to attend, but those choices don’t sit well with some of the parents.

“The options they gave us are for schools that are all overcrowded,” North Smithfield Manor parent and Gardendale High alumna Leslie Williams said. “I never had a problem with Gardendale forming their own school system. The problem is, how is this done?”

One well-known Gardendale resident who attended the meeting but didn’t speak was Scott Beason, an outspoken conservative who represented the city in the Alabama House and Senate for 16 years and who is now a Birmingham radio talk-show host.

“The common denominator in what was said tonight, no matter what community you were from — Mt. Olive, (North) Smithfield, Gardendale folks — everybody is pulling their hair out to avoid being managed by the county,” Beason said. “That should be a telling thing, and I wish that we would just put all those communities together, pay the bills, suck it up and get it done.”

The cutline on the photo of board members has been changed to correct  Michael Hogue’s first name.