By:  Kent Faulk
Source: Alabama Local

Federal Appeals Court Rules Gardendale Can't Form School System, Finds Racial Motives

A federal appeals court ruled today that Gardendale can't form its own school system and agreed with a judge's finding that racial motives were involved in the attempt to split from the Jefferson County system.

The three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Haikala rescind the part of her order from last year that allowed Gardendale to secede over a three-year period from Jefferson County schools and form its own system.

Circuit Judge William Pryor, a former Alabama Attorney General wrote the opinion.

"The district court (Haikala) found that the Gardendale Board acted with a discriminatory purpose to exclude black children from the proposed school system and, alternatively, that the secession of the Gardendale Board would impede the efforts of the Jefferson County Board to fulfill its desegregation obligations," according to the 11thCircuit opinion. "Despite these findings, the district court devised and permitted a partial secession that neither party requested."

"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 (own her own) allowed a partial secession. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand with instructions (to Haikala) to deny the motion to secede."

"If the Gardendale Board, for permissible purposes in the future, satisfies its burden to develop a secession plan that will not impede the desegregation efforts of the Jefferson County Board, then the district court may not prohibit the secession," according to the ruling. "We do not belittle the 'need that is strongly felt in our society' to have '[d]irect control over decisions vitally affecting the education of one's children,'" according to the ruling that cites a previous case. "Indeed, the "local autonomy of school districts is a vital national tradition,'" the opinion states, quoting another case.

"We hold only that the desire for local autonomy must yield when a constitutional violation is found and remains unremedied," the court ruled.

Haikala ruled in a 190-page order on April 24 that despite finding some Gardendale residents had racial motives for splitting off from the Jefferson County system, she would allow the city to form its own school system under certain conditions. Those conditions included appointing an African American to the school board, forming a plan on how it would avoid discrimination, paying the county for the high school (potentially more than $50 million), and operating two elementary schools for two years before being allowed to also operate the middle school and high school.

Haikala presides over the 1965 school desegregation case Stout vs. Jefferson County Board of Education. Since a 1971 order in that case, federal judges have continued oversight - including approval of attendance zones - over county schools to make sure racial balances are maintained and no discrimination occurs.

Cities allowed to split off from the Jefferson County system since the 1971 order have been required to remain under the desegregation order until their system has reached "unitary status" - achieving the goals of becoming a non-discriminatory, desegregated system.

Attorneys for black school children in the lawsuit appealed Haikala's ruling to the 11th Circuit, saying they agreed with Haikala's findings that the attempted split was racially motivated to keep the schools from accepting more black children. But, they disagreed with her giving Gardendale a plan for starting their own system anyway.

Gardendale also appealed to the 11th Circuit over Haikala's partial ruling and finding of racial motives. The city also disagreed that it shouldn't have to reimburse the county for taking over Gardendale High School, which was one of the contingencies in her ruling.

Meanwhile the Jefferson County School System had argued that Gardendale's secession would affect its ability to achieve unitary status by taking away the schools it had built in that city. Students who didn't live in the city would have had to be reassigned to other county schools, disrupting the racial balance of its system.

"We were pleased with the 11th Circuit's review and opnion of the secession plan that Gardendale attempted to pass," Dr. Craig Pouncey, superintendent of Jefferson County Schools, said Tuesday afternoon.

"For the communities subjected to the turmoil the past four years it's time to come together and work for the continued improvement that we've made the past four years," Pouncey said. "Not only for the students in Gardendale but for all the student in Jefferson County."

Pouncey said the ruling protects the rights of all children who attend the schools, both those who live in or outside Gardendale. "If Gardendale had been given the authority to form they would have had to delete many of the (school) programs we have today because they would not have had the financial capacity to continue them," he said.