Alabama City Sued Over Taxes for Nixed School System

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) – An Alabama resident leading a class action claims he has for the last four years paid taxes to a Birmingham suburb for a school district that doesn’t exist.

Because a racial desegregation order has governed the Jefferson County Board of Education since 1971, students from predominantly black communities can attend schools in the city of Gardendale by taking advantage of a majority-to-minority transfer provision.

As its schools became more racially diverse than the city population, Gardendale, a city of under 14,000 north of Birmingham, launched a grassroots effort in 2012 to create a separate municipal school system.

Filed Friday in Jefferson County Circuit Court, Gardendale resident Jay Campbell’s class action seeks a declaration that a tax earmarked for the city’s own school district is illegal, as well as an order for taxpayers to be refunded.

The lawsuit comes less than two weeks after the 11th Circuit barred the predominantly white Glendale from operating its own school system, finding that racial discrimination motivated the secessionist movement and the separation would hamper desegregation efforts in Jefferson County.

“Gardendale has not appropriated or used any of the money collected under the municipal tax since it began being collected, but rather is holding those monies,” Campbell’s complaint states. “And now, they cannot be used for that purpose, because Gardendale is legally prohibited from operating public schools.”

The lawsuit adds that the collected taxes have been used for “paying school administrators to supervise a non-existent school system, and … funding lawyers to prosecute a catastrophically, and now finally, unsuccessful effort to form a splinter district.”

Lead plaintiff Campbell is represented by attorney Wilson Green with Fleenor and Green in Tuscaloosa, Ala., who declined to comment on the lawsuit. Gardendale did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.

Over the last few years, according to the complaint, residents like Campbell have been doubly taxed.

In 2014, the city – authorized by a referendum – began to collect a tax from its residents to pay for its own school district, which it hoped to form after it seceded from the county’s school system.

But at the same time, Gardendale residents continued to pay taxes to fund Jefferson County’s school district, the complaint states.

According to a lawsuit Gardendale filed in 2015, the northern Birmingham suburb formed its own board of education but the county refused to cede control of the schools at issue, even though then-State Schools Superintendent Tommy Bice authorized the separation. The city and the county have been in litigation ever since.

Campbell’s lawsuit argues double taxation is illegal, but if the court finds the city’s tax permissible, then he asks for a declaratory judgment and an order making the county repay him and other Gardendale residents.

“Alternatively, Gardendale cannot lawfully use its taxing authority to displace the county’s authority,” the complaint states.

On Feb. 13, the 11th Circuit denied the city’s request to run its own schools. U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor wrote in a 62-page decision that allowing the separation would exacerbate the problem of segregation and go against a 1971 desegregation order.

According to the Atlanta-based appeals court’s order, Gardendale is about 88 percent white. The three-judge panel led by Pryor upheld the district court’s finding that the city’s “secession movement communicated ‘messages of inferiority’ to black students.”

As an example, the 11th Circuit pointed to comments on a Facebook page maintained by local secession leaders, including one post that compared Gardendale’s predominantly white population with the more diverse population in Gardendale schools.

“A look around at our community sporting events, our churches are great snapshots of our community. A look into our schools, and you’ll see something totally different,” the post allegedly stated.

The 11th Circuit overturned the district court’s decision to allow a partial succession.

“The finding that a racially discriminatory purpose motivated the Gardendale Board also obliged the district court to deny the motion to secede,” Pryor wrote.

The decades-old desegregation order was put in place after a black father sued Jefferson County’s school district in 1965, alleging the biracial district violated his daughter’s rights enumerated by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The deregulation order may soon be a thing of the past, though. The 11th Circuit panel noted that the district court may receive “a plan for the final resolution of this litigation, which has lasted more than half a century.”

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