A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday the City of Gardendale cannot break away from the Jefferson County School System and form its own system after agreeing the separation was racially motivated.
The case has been remanded to U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala, the original judge in the case, with instructions that she deny the motion to secede.
The three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments related to the case in December and issued a ruling Tuesday that the split could not continue.
The original ruling, by Haikala, said the city could form its own system for the next school year, but it would only include the elementary schools, with a three-year plan for the system to also take over operation of the middle and high schools. Haikala issued the favorable ruling for the city school system, despite finding that the separation was motivated by race. That finding of racial motivation was the reason the appeals court issued the order to deny the separation.
“We conclude that the district court committed no clear error in its findings of a discriminatory purpose and of impeding the desegregation of the Jefferson County schools, but that it abused its discretion when it sua sponte allowed a partial secession. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand with instructions to deny the motion to secede,” the appeals court’s ruling said.
Both the Gardendale City School System and the private plaintiffs who had challenged the system’s formation appealed Haikala’s decision.
The private plaintiffs, represented by former federal judge U.W. Clemon, were joined by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in appealing the decision to allow the school system to move forward despite the finding of racial motivation. The appeal emphatically stated the finding of racial motivation meant the courts must deny the separation.
The City of Gardendale had appealed on the grounds it opposed the finding of racial motivation. Also, the system did not want the graduated three-year plan that Haikala ordered, instead asking for full control of all four schools inside the city. The city has maintained the motives are for better local control of schools, rather than racially motivated.
Both sides respond
Dr. Michael Hogue, president of the Gardendale City School Board, delivered a statement Tuesday on the ruling from the steps of the Hugo Black Federal Courthouse in Birmingham following the ruling: “The Gardendale Board of Education is deeply grieved and disappointed by the opinion of the three-judge panel refusing to allow us to operate our own city schools in Gardendale. We believe our actions have always reflected only our desire to form a new, welcoming, and inclusive school system to help schoolchildren and parents succeed, and we will continue to fight to achieve this by seeking further review in the federal courts.
“The Gardendale Board of Education is troubled with today’s appellate ruling that denies our ability to form a city school system, and we believe that the three-judge panel has misunderstood the evidence that was offered to the district court and has misapplied the law. A decision that blames Gardendale for the comments of private citizens on social media, is both contrary to the Constitution and a fundamental miscarriage of justice – and it is one we will continue to appeal.
“In our view, the judges mistakenly attributed what they saw as improper motives by a few to the Board of Education and the City as a whole. We plan to pursue all legal options to vindicate the rights of our residents and receive permission to operate what we have always desired: an excellent school system, open to students of all races, and dedicated to improving the education of our children.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Director of Litigation Sam Spital issued a statement related to the ruling:
“We have long maintained that Gardendale’s attempt to form its own school district was specifically designed to exclude Black schoolchildren. Ultimately, this separation would have created a district significantly whiter than the county as a whole, forcing some students to attend more racially segregated schools.
“Today’s ruling was the only logical conclusion following a district court’s direct acknowledgment that racial discrimination was a motivating factor in the City’s plans to secede. We commend the federal appeals court for its decision that combats a disturbing re-segregation trend, seen not just in Gardendale, but in cities across the country.
Clemon could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Ruling disappoints mayor
Gardendale Mayor Stan Hogeland said he was “disappointed” about the ruling, but more upset the city and its efforts to form a system had been labeled as racist. Hogeland said he and other city leaders will be meeting with the school board, lawyers and others to determine the course of action for the city moving forward.
The Jefferson County Board of Education did not appeal the original decision. The school system issued the following statement on Tuesday afternoon: “The Jefferson County Board of Education has received the opinion from the federal appeals court regarding the Gardendale split. We are reviewing the decision and determining what the best course of action is, as this matter will return to the district court.
“While we were not appellants, we want to make it clear that during this process, our main concern is how to best educate all children affected by Gardendale’s possible succession. Regardless of the court’s final decision, we remain focused on continuing to improve education throughout the Jefferson County School District and look forward to a final decision regarding this matter.”
The school system had previously indicated it planned to consolidate Fultondale High School and Gardendale High School if the new school system was not approved. That plan would likely include keeping all the feeder elementary schools (Mt. Olive Elementary, Snow Rogers Elementary, Gardendale Elementary, Brookside Elementary, Fultondale Elementary, etc.) and building a new middle school in Fultondale combining all elementary school students as they aged to middle school. The students would then go from the new middle school in Fultondale to Gardendale High School. The school board did not address that plan on Tuesday.
On Facebook, residents shared various opinions of the ruling, but many expressed relief at having an answer.
Mt. Olive resident Cathy Tuggle Maple posted, “Finally. An answer. Federal court rules Gardendale may NOT form their own school system. I’m just thankful for an answer so we can all move on. Together or in different directions . It’s been a long 6 years.”
The appeal court decision retraced the origins of the desegregation order that currently rules the Jefferson County School System. The case, Stout vs. Jefferson County Board of Education, originated in 1965, when Linda Stout’s father sued the board on behalf of her and other black classmates. The suit claimed the students were still being subjected to a segregated school system in Jefferson County although that had been struck down in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.
The ruling in that case became the order that would oversee all decisions about schools and changes to school zones or plans from 1971 and beyond. The fulfillment of the order to fully desegregate the county schools was overseen by a series of federal judges who approved or denied all changes that might impact the desegregation efforts of the school system, as it moved toward what is called “unitary status.” Haikala is the current judge who oversees the desegregation order.
According to the ruling, the movement for Gardendale to form its own system began “when the schools in that City were becoming racially diverse while the population of the City remained overwhelmingly white.” To illustrate that, the order said that in 1996, the student population at Gardendale schools was 92 percent white and 8 percent black, which mirrored the city’s population diversity percentages. By 2010, the order noted the population was 88 percent white and less than 9 percent black.
One of the city’s schools, Snow Rogers Elementary, remained closely tied to those racial lines, with 94 percent of the student body being white and 4 percent being black. The city’s other three schools, Gardendale Elementary, Bragg Middle School and Gardendale High School, were less than 80 percent white and 20 or more percent black. The ruling cited that change as a motivator that began the school separation efforts.
Although Gardendale remained mainly white, as did surrounding communities like Mt. Olive, there were also more racially diverse areas, such as Brookside and Graysville, where students were still zoned to Gardendale for middle and high school.
The largest portion of Gardendale school’s black population comes from an area called North Smithfield/Greenleaf Heights. The area is not in the city limits of Gardendale, but constitutes approximately 30 percent of the black student population at the middle school and more than 25 percent of the black population at Gardendale High School.
How it started
According to the ruling, there were four individuals who spearheaded the beginnings of the city school system, Tim Bagwell, Chris Lucas, David Salters and Chris Segroves. Seagroves and Lucas later served on the board of education and Bagel and Salters served on the advisory board of the school system.
According to the order, the group maintained a Facebook page where they often discussed with each other and community members the benefits of forming a school system. The order cited various Facebook posts and other materials used during the early days of the separation that they believes had a racial tone.
In 2013, the Gardendale City Council approved a five-mill ad valorem tax to support the planned new school system and residents soon voted to approve an additional fill-mill tax to fund the school system. The order makes mention that the council then appointed an all-white, five-member school board and hired Dr. Patrick Martin as superintendent.
After years of arguments, the case was finally heard in late 2016 by Haikala, with Gardendale City Schools, Jefferson County Board of Education, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the U.S. Justice Department and the private plaintiffs represented, as well as an allowance for limited intervention from two residents of Mt. Olive, the town of Brookside and the city of Graysville represented.
The ruling ends by saying that it does not propose that the Gardendale schools are required to remain a part of the county system forever. “If the Gardendale Board, for permissible purposes in the future, satisfies its burden to develop a secession plan that will not impede the desecration efforts of the Jefferson County Board, then the district court may not prohibit the secession.”