On Monday evening, a federal judge ruled that a predominantly white city in Alabama is allowed to separate from a more racially diverse school district. However, Judge Madeline Haikala of the U.S. District Court in Birmingham -- who is overseeing desegregation efforts in the surrounding Jefferson County -- concluded that the separation could go forward even though she sees that the action is racial identity and also transmitted messages of racial inferiority and exclusion that “assail the dignity of black schoolchildren.”
 
Gardendale is a suburb of Birmingham. The latter is the state capital, which is famed strife during the Civil Rights Era. It was there that a terrorist bomb killed children at the 16th Street Baptist Church and where Martin Luther King Jr. was briefly jailed. The Gardendale community has long sought its own small school system, thus separating itself from Jefferson County, where black students outnumber whites. Advocates for separation say they are seeking local control, not racial segregations. Critics differ with them, saying Gardendale’s efforts are racial in nature and should not be allowed. The region has sought to desegregate its schools for more than fifty years.
 
Judge Haikala’s ruling did not satisfy either side in the debate, saying in her ruling that the breakup is “deplorable.” Attorneys for black plaintiffs claimed a partial victory because the court found intentional racial discrimination. However, there was perplexity over why the separation was allowed. Attorneys are planning to ask Haikala to reconsider her decision. The Justice Department, under the Obama administration, had opposed the separation. There was no official word this week from DOJ. 
 
In her 190-page document explaining her decision, Haikala reviewed the history of school desegregation in Jefferson County, in addition to efforts of majority-white, affluent cities to form their own school systems. Those separations have meant that the county has a smaller tax base, but a growing number of minority and low-income students. The judge noted that organizers of Gardendale’s split, in their public statements and Facebook posts, saw that secession would control the racial demographics of city schools by erecting a barrier against black students. “Nonresident students are increasing at [an] alarming rate in our schools,” one organizer wrote on Facebook. “Those students do not contribute financially. They consume the resources of our schools, our teachers and our resident students, then go home.” 
 
There are black students from North Smithfield, which is a community approximately 10 miles away in Birmingham, who attend middle and high school in Gardendale under a regional desegregation plan that is decades old. According to Haikala, one flier distributed in Gardendale delivered “an unambiguous message of inferiority” to black students, Haikala wrote. The flier bore the image of a white child and asked, “Which path will Gardendale choose?” It offered two choices: a list of predominantly black cities, whose schools remain part of the Jefferson County system; and a list of predominantly white cities — “some of the best places to live in the country,” whose schools have broken away over the years.
 
Even though she could have decided to block the secession because she believes that it will likely impair the desegregation of Jefferson County schools, Haikala ruled in favor of secession out of concern for black students, who she said would bear the blame if she refused.
 
Haikala will allow Gardendale to form its own school system in stages with a full separation from Jefferson County schools within three years if the city can prove it can operate a desegregated school system. Gardendale will have to provide a desegregation plan and appoint at least one black resident to its board of education within 60 days. If Gardendale wants to bring in Gardendale High School under its jurisdiction, it will have to reimburse Jefferson County for it or otherwise allow it to remain in the Jefferson County school system. "The Court is giving the Gardendale Board of Education an opportunity to demonstrate good faith," Haikala stated in her order. She did not suggest an amount Gardendale should pay for the multi-million dollar high school.
 
"To date, the Gardendale Board has fallen short, but it is a new board with limited training," Haikala stated in her ruling. "The Court is giving the Gardendale Board the opportunity to operate elementary schools (first) because skills learned in elementary school prove to be the best predictors of future academic success."
 
Haikala's plan for Gardendale:
 
As of the fall 2017 and Haikala orders otherwise, Gardendale may operate Gardendale Elementary and Snow Rogers Elementary schools for students who live within the municipal boundaries of the City of Gardendale.
 
Lawyers for the plaintiffs (Jefferson County Schools and NAACP Legal Defense Fund) and Department of Justice are to confer with lawyers for the Gardendale Board of Education and submit to the Court within 60 days a proposed desegregation plan containing provisions relating to interdistrict transfers, and redrawing the lines for Snow Rogers and Gardendale Elementary to address capacity issues at Gardendale Elementary. 
 
During the first 12 months of the three-year period of supervision, the private plaintiffs, the DOJ, and the Jefferson County and Gardendale boards are to develop a proposed facilities plan for all of the students who currently are zoned for Bragg and Gardendale High, Haikala stated.
 
"That plan must either place the Gardendale High School facility in the Jefferson County system under a new name, or it shall place the high school facility in an anticipated K-12 Gardendale district with an appropriate payment to the Jefferson County Board of Education or the Jefferson County Commission to help fund an alternative high school facility for Jefferson County."
 
History 
 
Since a 1971 order in the 1965 schools desegregation case Stout vs. Jefferson County Board of Education, federal judges have had close oversight authority over county schools to ensure racial balances are maintained and no discrimination occurs. The six cities that split off from Jefferson County Schools since 1971 have been required to adhere to the desegregation order until their system has reached "unitary status," which is the achieving the goal of becoming a non-discriminatory and desegregated system. When Gardendale sought to do the same, in 2013 residents voted to form a school system, named a school board, and hired a superintendent.
 
The Jefferson County system, DOJ, and private plaintiffs in the lawsuit argued against Gardendale forming its own system. Those groups said that Gardendale's system could prevent the Jefferson County system from achieving unitary status and getting out from under federal oversight. 
 
Haikala found racist motivations for Gardendale’s secession. "And if pictures speak louder than words, then a flyer bearing a photograph of a white student that asks Gardendale voters if they would rather live in an affluent white city or a formerly white city that now is well-integrated or predominantly black communicates an unambiguous message of inferiority," Haikala wrote. "There is no way to downplay or sidestep the harm that such a message conveys."
 
"Any arguable ambiguity in the flyer is resolved by blatant public statements from separation organizers that 'we don't want to become' what Center Point has become, and we need separation to provide 'better control of the geographic composition of the student body,'" Haikala wrote. 
 
Even though members of the Gardendale Board did not make those statements, Haikala wrote. "But no member of the Gardendale Board has said anything, at least not publicly. No member of the board has disavowed the belittling language of exclusion used by separation organizers and supporters." She added, "No member of the Board has reached out to students from North Smithfield to say 'you have been a part of these schools for 50 years, and we welcome you and want you to be part of them for 50 more' The silence is deafening." 
 
While recognizing that “there are no easy answers for the current situation," Haikala wrote, "In a district like Jefferson County that was so resistant to desegregation that the Court had to order non-contiguous zoning, the process of finalizing federal oversight is complex." She continued, "Difficult discussions must be had about the best zoning options for students as federal supervision comes to a close."
 
Haikala offered a history lesson as a code to her opinion, writing, "History teaches that communities, left to their own devices, re-segregate fairly quickly, in some cases sending the very messages of inferiority that the Supreme Court attempted to address in Brown (the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court school desegregation case." Haikala wrote. "The families of students who for years have boarded buses to attend schools outside of their neighborhoods must be consulted and must be part of the conversation about the best way to move forward. IIn doing the complicated work of dissolving a desegregation order, a court must ensure that the dying embers of de jure segregation aren't once again fanned into flames.”

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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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