Bragg Middle School in Gardendale in August 2016. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Lawyers for black Alabama schoolchildren are appealing a federal judge’s decision to allow a predominantly white city near Birmingham to secede from its predominantly black school district, arguing that to allow such a separation would run counter to long-standing case law and undermine black students’ civil rights.

Gardendale — a mostly white municipality north of Birmingham — has sought for years to form its own school district independent from surrounding Jefferson County, arguing that their students would benefit from a smaller school system and a greater degree of local control. In April, U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Haikala found that the separation arose out of intentional racial discrimination, sent messages of racial inferiority to black students and would likely hamper court-ordered desegregation efforts countywide — but she said the effort could move forward anyway.

In their appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund argued this week that Haikala erred. Given her findings of a racial motivation, they argued, and given the likely impact on Jefferson County’s ability to finally integrate its schools, binding legal precedents gave her no choice but to block Gardendale’s separation.

Not only was Haikala’s decision wrong on Gardendale, but her ruling “conveys a powerful message to other municipalities that they may be permitted to secede in the future even if their secession is motivated by intentional racial discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment,” wrote the lawyers, including Monique Lin-Luse of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and retired federal judge U.W. Clemon.

Patrick Martin, Gardendale’s superintendent, said in response, “Nothing in the Brief filed on Monday comes as a surprise. The Gardendale Board attorney team is preparing our response and plan to file it soon in accordance with the Court.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that school districts should not be allowed to splinter away from larger districts when such a move would get in the way of court-ordered desegregation efforts. And yet federal courts have continued to allow such splintering.

Jefferson County has struggled to desegregate its schools for more than half a century, in part because one after another predominantly white cities have formed their own independent districts, leaving the county with a growing proportion of black and low-income students — and a smaller tax base to draw on.

Gardendale’s attempted separation has become a test case for whether this pattern will be allowed to continue.

In her 190-page April decision, Haikala said that evidence demonstrated Gardendale leaders, in their attempt to separate, were trying to exclude black students who were bused in from elsewhere as part of the county’s desegregation efforts. That sent clear messages of racial inferiority that “assail the dignity of black schoolchildren,” Haikala wrote. But she decided to allow the separation to move forward, she said, in part because if she blocked it, she worried black children would bear the blame.

In their appellate brief filed Monday, lawyers for the black plaintiffs said they “respectfully reject the court’s efforts to define their self-interests, and assert that the plaintiff
class’s interests are best served by refusing to recognize splinter districts that fail to advance desegregation in Jefferson County, and which were created for the purpose of excluding Black students.”

Haikala’s ruling did not fully satisfy any party. She decided that Gardendale could begin operating the two elementary schools within its boundaries in fall 2017. If city leaders showed good faith in carrying out desegregation efforts at those schools over the following three years — including by allowing and paying for transfer students and appointing a black member to the all-white city school board — it might then be allowed to take over the middle and high schools within its boundaries, she said.

The judge stayed the order at the request of both the black plaintiffs and Gardendale’s school board, which is also appealing the ruling. In a statement issued in May, the school board said that it would ask the Court of Appeals to allow it to begin operating all four schools immediately.

“The Board will demonstrate on appeal that no one’s civil rights have ever been endangered by Gardendale’s separation efforts,” the board said. “With its own case on appeal, the Board hopes that ultimately it can deliver what our community has worked so hard for: a school system operated by an accountable and locally-appointed board of education.”