ATLANTA (CN) – Ruling against a white community in Alabama that wanted to pull its children out of desegregated schools, the 11th Circuit agreed Tuesday that racial discrimination motivated the secessionist movement.
Because a racial desegregation order has governed the Jefferson County Board of Education since 1971, students from predominantly black communities can attend schools in 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.
U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala ultimately concluded that Gardendale’s actions violated the 14th Amendment and hurt the county’s desegregation efforts, but she still permitted partial secession.
A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit found Tuesday that this order was an abuse of discretion.
Haikala’s “finding of a racially discriminatory purpose required the district court to deny the motion to secede in its entirety,” U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor wrote for the court in Atlanta.
Sam Spital, who is the director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, applauded the ruling.
“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,” Spital said.
In Tuesday’s ruling, Pryor noted that the continued secessionist efforts of white municipalities has wrought significant changes on Jefferson County school demographics.
“In 2000, the student population in the Jefferson County school system was about 75 percent white and 23 percent black,” Pryor wrote. “But by 2015, the student population of the school system was approximately 43 percent white and 47 percent black.”
The NAACP’s Spital called on supporters to continue “thwart[ing] re-segregation efforts so that students can benefit from co-existing and learning together.”
Gardendale’s board reacted to the ruling with dismay, meanwhile, saying Pryor and his colleagues appeared to have “misunderstood the evidence [and] … misapplied the law.”
With anywhere from 12 to 22 black students attending Gardendale High annually as transfer students between 2009 to 2016, the city’s secession grew out of a community Facebook page where residents groused about school demographics.
The city council soon adopted an ordinance to establish its own school system, and the new district’s superintendent drafted a secession plan to phase most nonresidents out of Gardendale’s four schools over a period of 13 years.
Tuesday’s ruling notes that some supporters of the secession balked at the prospect of allowing any nonresidents to attend the municipal schools. One of the the group’s advisory board members assured them, however, that swallowing this “bitter … pill” would help their “ultimate … goal.”
When the Gardendale Board sought court approval of their secession plan, a group of black children from Jefferson County schools intervened in the case as opponents.
Judge Haikala ultimately permitted the introduction of evidence from the Gardendale Facebook page in weighing the arguments, saying it contained “belittling language of exclusion.”
In one, the poster lamented a trend where nonresidents “consume the resources of our schools, our teachers and our resident students, then go home” without “contribut[ing] financially.”
A flyer by secessionist supporters that the court also considered asked 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.”
Haikala explained later that the words and actions of the secession leaders and the Gardendale Board “communicated messages of inferiority and exclusion” to black schoolchildren.
In its statement on Tuesday’s reversal, the Gardendale Board took issue with these findings.
“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,” the board said.
Pryor meanwhile found that the secession plan Haikala devised “weighed a number of impermissible considerations.”
To begin with, the 61-page ruling states, Haikala had no basis to speculate on whether the 1971 desegregation order covering Jefferson County would soon be dissolved.
“The district court also erred when it speculated that the possible social tension caused by finding a constitutional violation would warrant allowing the violation to succeed in part,” Pryor wrote. “The district court stated that it had to consider the interests of students from North Smithfield who ‘may feel unwelcome in Gardendale schools’ if it denied the motion to secede.”
Pryor emphasized that “the history of school desegregation is rife with conflict.”
“Indeed, if animosity alone could thwart constitutional imperatives, Brown II would have been in error,” the ruling says, referring to a ruling that followed the landmark desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. “As the Supreme Court put it then, ‘the vitality of … constitutional principles cannot be allowed to yield simply because of disagreement with them.’”
Haikala also drew barbs for focusing on “the wishes of parents who support a local system simply because they want greater control over their children’s education.”
“Even more concerning,” Pryor wrote, “the district court gave special weight to the concerns of some Gardendale parents because of their race, which should be — and is — legally irrelevant.”
Pryor emphasized that the Gardendale Board of Education could find autonomy down the line. But to do so it must satisfy “its burden to develop a secession plan that will not impede the desegregation efforts of the Jefferson County Board.”
“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,’” Tuesday’s opinion concludes. “Indeed, the ‘local autonomy of school districts is a vital national tradition.’ We hold only that the desire for local autonomy must yield when a constitutional violation is found and remains unremedied.”