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Civil Rights Group Seeks to Halt Town's Secession From Diverse Alabama District

A national civil rights group has appealed on behalf of black schoolchildren seeking to overturn a federal district court ruling that permits a new school district for a predominantly white Alabama city to take control of two schools from a larger county system despite a finding that the move was racially motivated.

The appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, comes in a case that has drawn nationwide attention since last spring.

In April, U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala ruled in Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education that the Gardendale school district, formed in 2014 by a predominantly white community near Birmingham, could take control of two elementary schools within its boundaries from the larger Jefferson County school system.

The judge held that two other schools operated by the Jefferson County system within Gardendale—a middle school and high school—would remain under the county system's control for at least three years.

The judge allowed Gardendale to take control of the elementary schools despite her findings that race was a motivating factor in the community's efforts to secede from the county system and that Gardendale could not show that its secession efforts would be unlikely to harm Jefferson County's desegregation efforts.

But Haikala wrote that she wanted to be fair to Gardendale residents "who support a municipal separation for reasons that have nothing to do with race."

"All parents want the best possible education for their children, and there is nothing inherently wrong with preferring a small local district to a large county district," she wrote.

The 36,000-student Jefferson County district has been under a federal desegregation order since 1971. Its enrollment last year was 47.5 percent black an 43.5 percent white. The district has seen three other predominantly white communities secede from the county system since the desegregation order went into place. Gardendale would be the fourth to operate its own schools, though the plan to operate the elementary schools is on hold pending appeals. 

On Aug. 7, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed an appeal in the case to the 11th Circuit court on behalf of black Jefferson County students.

"The district court unambiguously found that Gardendale's secession was motivated by the desire to exclude black children from its schools, and that its separation effort violated the Fourteenth Amendment," the appeal states. "Consequently, Gardendale's actions have no legitimacy at all under our Constitution, and its secession may not be permitted. In sum, one cannot cure the constitutional infirmity inherent in the creation of a public-school system for the purpose of excluding black children by allowing the formation of a school system created for the purpose of excluding black children."

Referring to a reference by Judge Haikala to a need for Jefferson County and Gardendale to "heal," the appeal says "there is no 'healing' for Black students when a court provides legal sanction to the 'messages of inferiority' sent by the separation organizers and the Gardendale school board, messages which assail the dignity of black school children."

The appeal also references the issue of "splinter districts"—communities that break off from larger school districts, often with deleterious effects on racial diversity. 

"Affirming the District Court's approval of a separate Gardendale school district not only eviscerates the longstanding precedent that a discriminatory effect prohibits the creation of splinter district, but also would permit discriminatory intent to be ignored in the creation of a splinter district," the appeal says.

The Gardendale secession was opposed by the Jefferson County school system, as well as by the U.S. Department of Justice. The views of those parties, as well as the Gardendale system's response, will likely be filed in the 11th Circuit court in coming weeks or months.

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