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A white Alabama town gets own school district in legal nod to local control

Note Friday night: The commenting tool on this blog was broken for 24 hours.  It is now fixed. I apologize for those who could not comment. Maureen

If I could have redesigned my local schools to suit my son, there would have been a k-8 school and a high school with more math and science and few group projects. But that model would have alienated his twin sister who liked middle school and wished every class was chorus.

And therein is the problem with deferring to parents: Parents are going to advocate for what’s best for their child, which may not work for the kid next door or even a twin sibling.

I believe parents have every right to lobby for programs and policies that will inspire and advantage their children. However, I also believe teachers, school leaders, elected officials and the courts have to serve as ballast; they have to ensure publicly funded schools meet the needs of a broad base of students.

It is a balancing act, an incredibly delicate and complicated one, as can be seen in a controversial case in Alabama. The majority white parents of Gardendale, Alabama, won clearance -- with some strings attached -- to split from the Jefferson County district and operate their own school system. The second largest school district in Alabama, Jefferson serves about 36,000 students, 47.5 percent of whom are black and 43.5 percent are white.

Gardendale is a suburb of Birmingham. The population was 14,000 in the 2010 census and about 84 percent white. The children of Gardendale attend school with African-American peers from close communities outside the city limits. Those students from such nearby areas as North Smithfield are responsible for most of the racial diversity in the Gardendale feeder pattern, particularly in Bragg Middle School and Gardendale High.

Relying on an Alabama law that allows independent school districts, Gardendale began a campaign to leave the county schools in 2013, forming its own board of education and hiring a superintendent. The effort was countered with legal challenges from the Jefferson district, the U.S. Department of Justice and private plaintiffs. The matter ended up in the hands of a federal judge who ruled last week.

Judge Madeline Haikala of the U.S. District Court in Birmingham ruled Gardendale may take over its two local elementary schools. Depending on how the city does in preventing segregation in its schools by allowing and paying for transfers and appointing an African-American to the all-white city school board, the  judge said Gardendale may eventually control all of the schools within its boundaries.

Haikala ruled for Gardendale despite acknowledging the long shadow segregation casts in Alabama. Her detailed 190-page decision is a primer on 50 years of desegregation struggles and battles in Jefferson County.

Haikala did not shy away from addressing the role of racism on the part of some Gardendale separation supporters, writing:

"During Gardendale’s separation effort, both words and deeds have communicated messages of inferiority and exclusion. The message cannot be lost on children who live in North Smithfield. Words on a public Facebook page that say to North Smithfield students zoned to Bragg and Gardendale High for nearly 50 years that these are 'OUR schools' and you should have been removed from them years ago communicate plainly to black students from North Smithfield the message that these schools are not yours, and you are not welcome here."

The Gardendale Board of Education denied the allegations that racism was behind the secession zeal, stating in a 2016 legal brief it would "show how the law has changed in the last 25 years, and that GBOE's operation of its own schools is fully consonant with the orders of this Court and the Constitution and will not revive the system of racial segregation that has been dead and gone for 45 years."

Why did the judge rule in favor of Gardendale parents despite her reservations about motive? Because Haikala found merit in their desire for a smaller school system and more local control:

‘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. While good, legitimate intentions are not necessarily enough to warrant separation under Wright given the countervailing need for a conclusion of federal supervision in the county system, per Swann, when fashioning an equitable remedy, the Court must 'balance the individual and collective interests' involved. Therefore, the Court must, to the extent practicable, honor the wishes of parents who support a local system simply because they want greater control over their children’s education.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.