Gardendale, Ala. wants its own schools. A return to segregation?

Gardendale officials say they simply want to control the city's tax dollars and school buildings. But the county school system and Department of Justice argue the move would lead to resegregation. 

Russell Contreras/ AP/ File
This Oct. 17, 2015, file photo, shows the entrance to the University of Alabama's Foster Auditorium, where Gov. George Wallace once stood at the entrance to prevent two black students from entering. A mostly white city in Alabama wants to secede from the county school system, leading to concerns about resegregation.

A predominantly white Alabama city wants to break from a county school system to retain control of its school buildings and tax dollars to create a smaller, better education system. But the Jefferson County School System argues such a move would lead to resegregation of a district with a history of separating white and black students. 

At a time when racial and income inequality are among the most contentious issues facing America, a federal judge's decision on whether or not the split can occur is being closely watched. At issue are a clash of competing models and values: the power of diversity in the classroom vs. the best education parents can provide for their children; federal vs. local control; racial integration vs. ethnic determination; redistribution of wealth vs. local control of resources.

US District Court Judge Madeline Haikala could decide any day now whether or not to block the secession of the Gardendale City Schools – a decision left to federal judges under a 1971 desegregation order established in Stout v. the Jefferson County Board of Education.

The Jefferson County School System, the second largest in Alabama, has a long history of segregation. Following the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that found “separate but equal” schooling is unconstitutional, several black families sued the county school system over segregation. The families won the lawsuit, with a federal judge overseeing county schools ever since.

Opponents to Gardendale’s actions, which include the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the US Department of Justice, argue the city’s efforts are part of a scattered trend of resegregation among mostly white municipalities.

These cities might not have resegregation in mind, Erica Frankenberg, an associate professor of education and demography at Pennsylvania State University, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. But the result is an “alarming trend,” she says, in places that include Gardendale and Mobile and Baldwin counties in Alabama; East Baton Rouge, La.; and Pasadena, Calif. Secession can contribute to isolation between students from different economic and racial backgrounds, but schools can play a role in breaking down those walls.

“We see rising racial segregation overwhelmingly connected with income segregation,” says Dr. Frankenberg, who has studied the demographics of the Jefferson County School System. “Places with diverse schools help to break that linkage,” with consequences for nationwide discussions of racial inequality. 

But the mayor of Gardendale has said he is focused on improving his city, not the whole country or even the county.  

It’s keeping our tax dollars here with our kids rather than sharing them with kids all over Jefferson County,” Mayor Stan Hogeland told The Washington Post earlier this year. 

The secession effort – mostly fueled by parents seeking better schools for their kids – started when Gardendale residents lobbied their neighbors in 2013 to raise taxes to split from the Jefferson County School System, according to a timeline created by The Birmingham News. An Alabama law allows cities with a population of more than 5,000 to form their own school systems, according to a feasibility study the city paid for in 2013. Voters approved the tax hike, and in 2014, the city appointed its own school board and superintendent.

In March 2015, the newly formed Gardendale Board of Education sued the Jefferson County system to relinquish control of the schools within the city, including the $46 million Gardendale High School built in 2010, which includes a career and technical education center that serves the whole district. Later that month, Judge Haikala intervened, eventually leading Gardendale to challenge in August whether a federal court should even have oversight over Jefferson County schools anymore.

"Federal supervision of local school districts was always intended to be merely temporary, and after over 50 years of litigation, the time has come for an end to this case and the restoration of the self-governance and local control of schools that the Supreme Court has recognized is a central and compelling interest in our Constitutional system," Gardendale states in court documents, according to The Birmingham News.

The Justice Department responded on Aug. 26, writing in a court filing that the Gardendale split "would effectively cut the heart out of Jefferson County's current desegregation efforts and hinder its ability to comply with this Court's directives moving forward," as The Birmingham News reported.

Of the nearly 36,000 students that attend Jefferson County schools, 43.5 percent were white in October 2015 and 47.5 percent are black, according to court documents. Fifty-two percent also qualified for free and reduced lunch because of their family income. Gardendale, in comparison, is about 88 percent white, and seven percent of the city’s residents live below the federal poverty line.

Gardendale also lies in the center of Jefferson County. Since it proposed the break, Gardendale has agreed to continue taking in students from the predominantly black North Smithfield Manor and Greenleaf Heights communities that neighbor it.  

But Jefferson County school officials say the new school system will hurt students in both Gardendale and the rest of the county.

“Students are entitled to go to school to experience a very diverse culture educationally to go out and be productive citizens,” Orletta Rush, the executive director of special initiatives for Jefferson County schools, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. “We all know the real world is a melting pot of diverse backgrounds. Students have to be able to adapt to that.”

Diversity in the classroom helps improves achievement, and prepares students for the global marketplace, an official with the US Department of Education told the Monitor in 2010

But supporters of the Gardendale secession point to Mountain Brook, Ala., an affluent white city that left Jefferson County in 1959. Today it is ranked as the No. 1 school system in the state, according to Niche. Jefferson County is ranked No. 50. 

Resegregation of schools has been building nationwide for more than a decade, as the Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson and Stacy Teicher Khadaroo reported:

Among the reasons: white families moving out of central cities or removing their children from the public schools there; school districts being released from court-ordered plans, or abandoning voluntary plans, to promote integration after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision; and a series of Supreme Court decisions since the early 1990s that have limited the tools districts can use for integration.

The most recent Supreme Court case came in 2007 and struck down integration plans in Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky. The court ruled 5 to 4 that districts could not assign students to schools solely on the basis of race, but it held that diversity was a compelling interest that could be pursued in other ways.

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