A view of posters of last year’s football and cheerleading squads at Bragg Middle School in Gardendale in August 2016. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

A federal judge’s ruling this week that allows a predominantly white Alabama city to separate from its more diverse school district is stoking new debate about the fate of desegregation initiatives after decades of efforts to promote racial balance in public education.

Judge Madeline Haikala of the U.S. District Court in Birmingham ruled that the city of Gardendale’s effort to break away was motivated by race and sent messages of racial inferiority and exclusion that “assail the dignity of black schoolchildren.”

She also found that Gardendale failed to meet its legal burden to prove that its separation would not hinder desegregation in Jefferson County, which has been struggling to integrate its schools since black parents first sued for an equal education for their children in the 1960s.

Still, Haikala ruled Monday that Gardendale may move forward with the secession, basing her decision in part on sympathy for some parents who want local control over schools and in part on concern for black students caught in the middle. The judge wrote that she feared they would bear the blame if she blocked the city’s bid.

U.W. Clemon, who represents black plaintiffs in the case, said the ruling undermines more than half a century of integration efforts. “If this decision stands, it will have a tremendous adverse impact,” Clemon said.

(Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Other majority-white communities in Jefferson County are already considering setting up their own school systems, said Clemon, who is a retired federal judge.

Haikala’s ruling says to them that “if Gardendale can do it, with its history of racism . . . then any other city would have the right to do what Gardendale has done,” Clemon said.

Backers of secession have said that they are seeking local control over schools, not racial segregation.

“We know that the community is anxious and ready to achieve its goal of a locally led public school system. We are, too,” Chris Segroves, president of the Gardendale Board of Education, said in a statement. “While the court’s order is progress and represents a significant development in that process, we must ask for your continued patience and prayers in the coming days as we work through this together for the betterment of our community.”

The Justice Department, which under the Obama administration had opposed the separation, declined to comment this week on the ruling.

Gardendale, a bedroom community outside Birmingham, has been pushing for years to leave the predominantly black school system in Jefferson County and form its own small district.

Haikala’s finding of a racial motivation in Gardendale’s separation, and her defense of the ongoing need for federal oversight of school desegregation cases, made her decision all the more perplexing to civil rights advocates.

Federal judges have over the years allowed a succession of majority-white cities to pull their schools out of the Jefferson system, leaving the county schools with a smaller tax base and a growing proportion of low-income and black students. But until now, no judge has so closely examined whether efforts to draw new school-district boundaries here were racially motivated — much less concluded that they were.

“It’s hard to square,” said Monique Lin-Luse, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who also represents black parents in the case. The court’s acknowledgment that race played a factor in the secession effort was a vindication “even beyond what we had hoped for,” Lin-Luse said, but the notion that the city of Gardendale can take steps toward forming its own system anyway is “of deep concern.”

Clemon said the parents whom he and Lin-Luse represent are likely to ask Haikala to reconsider her opinion.

Haikala’s 190-page decision recounts the decades-long battle over school desegregation in Jefferson County.

The judge offered a blistering critique of those who organized Gardendale’s effort to split from the county system. Pointing to Facebook posts and public statements, Haikala concluded that they clearly saw secession as a way to control the demographics of city schools, erecting a barrier to black students who transferred from other parts of the county.

“Nonresident students are increasing at [an] alarming rate in our schools,” one organizer wrote on Facebook. “Those students do not contribute financially. They consume the resources of our schools, our teachers and our resident students, then go home.”

Such sentiments send a clear message to black students — many of whom live miles away in a community called North Smithfield and attend Gardendale’s middle and high schools under a decades-old desegregation plan — that “these schools are not yours, and you are not welcome here,” Haikala wrote.

A flier distributed to Gardendale residents before a vote on whether to secede delivered “an unambiguous message of inferiority” to black students, Haikala wrote. The flier, bearing an image of a white child, asked, “Which path will Gardendale choose?” It presented a choice: a list of racially integrated or predominantly black cities whose schools remain part of the Jefferson County system; or a list of predominantly white cities — “some of the best places to live in the country,” the flier said — whose schools have broken away over the years.

Haikala decided that although she could opt to block the secession, given that it is likely impair the desegregation of county schools, she would allow it.

Black children from North Smithfield who are bused to Gardendale are in a “Catch-22,” the judge wrote, and without a concerted effort by the city’s leaders are likely to feel unwelcome no matter who runs the city’s schools. Gardendale proposed including North Smithfield students in its new school system only after leaders of the secession effort concluded that doing so was essential to winning court approval. “This is a tragic consequence of the way in which the Gardendale Board attempted to separate,” Haikala wrote.

Under Haikala’s decision, Gardendale may begin operating the two elementary schools within its boundaries this fall. If the city shows good faith in carrying out desegregation efforts at those schools over the next three years — including by allowing and paying for transfer students and appointing a black member to the all-white city school board — it may be allowed to take over the middle and high schools within its boundaries.

Even then, Gardendale would have to pay Jefferson County for the high school building that sits at the center of town, which cost the county more than $50 million to build. The high school plays a key role in the county’s efforts to integrate, using career and technical education programs to attract students from far-more-segregated areas.

Under Alabama law, cities of more than 5,000 residents can form independent school systems, and Gardendale had argued that the federal court should have no say over its separation. “Things have changed” since the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions on school segregation, Gardendale argued in a brief, and federal courts must “open their eyes to the condition of the present.”

Haikala forcefully rebutted that argument, writing that Gardendale’s message to black students that they are unwanted has been “unmistakable” and “intolerable.”

“The Court may not turn a blind eye to that message,” the judge wrote.

Pennsylvania State University professor Erica Frankenberg, who studies school segregation, said that the decision by Haikala — who was appointed by President Barack Obama and is relatively new to the Jefferson County case — is a significant departure from previous court decisions that allowed majority-white cities to break away from larger school systems without publicly explaining or grappling with the consequences. And Haikala has clearly signaled that she reserves the right to change course if Gardendale fails to meet its desegregation obligations.

Frankenberg said the decision also is an important defense of the federal government’s role in monitoring and overseeing school desegregation. “You can’t just say that the passage of time has gotten rid of the prior segregation,” she said.