School secessions raise resegregation fears

Since 2000, 70 school districts have tried to secede
By: | June 28, 2017

A federal judge ruled last spring that the predominantly white city of Gardendale, Alabama, may secede from its more diverse county school district—even though the judge saw racial motivations behind the city’s efforts. Jefferson County, Alabama, has been struggling to comply with a federal desegregation order since 1971.

Gardendale students have been attending the Jefferson County Public School system, which in 2015-16 had similar black and white student numbers. But only 20 percent of students in Gardendale are black.

The most recent controversy began in 2012, when two Gardendale residents and a resident of nearby Mount Olive (another predominantly white community) renewed the decades-old effort to form a separate Gardendale public system, according to court documents.

Sidebar: When secession is considered

The citizens group, FOCUS Gardendale, spearheaded a campaign to raise taxes to support the separate system. The group circulated a flyer that asked Gardendale voters if they would “rather live in an affluent city or a formerly white city that is now well-integrated or predominantly black” according to court records.

After Gardendale City Council formed Gardendale City Schools, Gardendale presented a separation plan that phased out non-resident students and filed a motion to operate a municipal school system.

Judge Madeline Haikala of the U.S. District Court in Birmingham 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 ensure racial balances are maintained.

Cities splitting off from the Jefferson County system since the 1971 order have been under the desegregation order until the system reaches “unitary status”—achieving the goals of becoming a nondiscriminatory, desegregated system. Haikala ruled Gardendale City Schools could operate two elementary schools in the 2017-18 year on a trial basis.

Dozens of districts try

Gardendale is not alone in its attempt to break away from a more diverse student population, a reality that has compounded socioeconomic inequalities that plague public schools, according to researchers at EdBuild, a nonprofit focused on school funding and inequality matters.

Seventy districts since 2000 have tried to secede, says Zahava Stadler, the organization’s manager of policy and research. Of those, 10 are pending and 15 were denied. Most separations involve smaller, more affluent communities, she says.

As more affluent students pull away, in general, the larger district is typically left with more impoverished students and a lower tax base.

The transfer of Gardendale schools is likely to be stayed, says Phoebe Plagens, communications associate for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is representing the plaintiffs. Haikala’s decision will be appealed to the 11th Circuit Court in Atlanta, a lengthy process with an uncertain end.

“They’ve been found to have discriminated, and they should not be allowed” to discriminate further, Plagens says. “All students have a right to an integrated education, and we want to make sure that opportunity remains and is expanded in Jefferson County.”

Like eight other states—including Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, South Dakota and West Virginia—Alabama’s school funding formula does not take poverty into account.

Jessica Ablamsky is a freelance writer in California.