Gardendale, Ala. — The school board in this small Birmingham suburb meets monthly, debates district policies and pays a superintendent’s salary. But the Gardendale Board of Education oversees no schools, employs no teachers and enrolls no students.
City officials in this predominantly white town appointed the board in 2014 as part of a years-long effort to secede from surrounding Jefferson County — where there are more African American than white students — and form their own independent school system.
Opponents argue that the secession effort is laced with racial overtones and amounts to a push for segregation. But supporters say that it has nothing to do with race and that they are motivated by a desire for local control of public education — and the tax money that pays for it.
“It’s keeping our tax dollars here with our kids, rather than sharing them with kids all over Jefferson County,” said Stan Hogeland, mayor of Gardendale, a town that no one would call rich but is better off than some of its neighbors. “My focus is on Gardendale, not the county as a whole.”
Five decades after black families first sued over segregation here, Jefferson County schools are still bound by a federal desegregation court order, which means a federal judge will have the final say over whether Gardendale will be allowed to secede.
It is a case that not only illustrates courts’ continued authority over dozens of the nation’s school systems still under desegregation orders, but also highlights an American reality: The lines drawn around school districts do not just determine who gets to vote in local school board elections; they also serve as walls that define communities and drive property values, separating black from white and poor from affluent.
“It’s important to be really critical anytime new boundary lines are drawn,” said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Penn State University who has studied desegregation in Jefferson County and nationwide. “They’re incredibly powerful.”
Alabama state law allows cities of more than 5,000 residents to form their own school systems, replacing what was once legal segregation with a different kind of division that also effectively has separated children by race and class, Frankenberg said.
When the Supreme Court deemed “separate but equal” unconstitutional in 1954, the vast majority of segregation was internal to individual school districts, meaning black and white students attended different schools within the same boundaries. Today, research has shown that most segregation in this part of Alabama — and nationwide — is because white and nonwhite students are enrolled in separate school districts.
Race is central to the issue, but so is wealth. EdBuild, an organization that advocates for overhauling school funding systems to make them more equitable, released an analysis this month that found more than 3,000 “hyper-segregating” borders nationwide — defined as boundaries that separate two districts with poverty rates that differ by more than 15 percentage points. The analysis cited the Birmingham area, including Jefferson County, as a “case study in gerrymandering” of district boundaries.
“Right now, there’s a clear financial incentive for wealthy communities to cordon themselves off because they get to keep their property taxes” to fund local schools, said Rebecca Sibilia, EdBuild’s chief executive. That exacerbates inequality, she said, leaving poor children in districts that do not have the means to meet their needs.
Secession movements seeking to create smaller, whiter and more-affluent school systems have simmered in recent years in many communities across the country, including Dallas, Atlanta and Baton Rouge.
One of the most striking recent examples of splintering school districts is in Tennessee, where the overwhelmingly black and low-income Memphis school system dissolved its charter in 2011 to tap the resources of surrounding Shelby County, a more-affluent and whiter suburban system. Suburban residents responded by defecting: They broke into six predominantly white school districts that left out students in the poorer inner city, home to a predominantly black population.
Gardendale’s secession effort began four years ago, when a small group of parents began lobbying their neighbors and city council members. In 2013, residents voted in favor of raising property taxes to establish their own school system.
“My issue with Jefferson County is generally the size and inefficiency of a large system,” said David Salters, the father of four children, who was among the leaders of the secession campaign.
Salters had no specific complaints about Jefferson County’s management of his children’s schools. He said city school systems tend to sit atop lists of online school rankings, pointing to a website showing that Mountain Brook — an affluent enclave that seceded from Jefferson County in 1959 and has about 4,000 students, 96 percent of whom are white and none of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — ranked No. 1 in the state. The rest of the top 10 also were city systems.
Jefferson County — whose school system enrolls 36,000 students, 43 percent white and 52 percent qualifying for subsidized lunches — was ranked 50th.
“Smaller is better,” Salters said, adding that he earned a bachelor’s degree at 31 after years of night school. He said he is willing to do anything he can to give his children a leg up in the world.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that federal judges are within their rights to stop secessions that would impede court-ordered desegregation efforts. Gardendale’s school board argues that federal judges should no longer have that right.
“Federal supervision of local school districts was always intended to be merely temporary, and after over 50 years of litigation, the time has come for an end to this case and the restoration of the self-governance and local control of schools that the Supreme Court has recognized as a central and compelling interest in our Constitutional system,” the board wrote in a recent court filing.
Gardendale is a growing town but not a wildly affluent one: Many of its homes are modest, tucked away in thickly wooded hills surrounded by old coal mines and busy strip malls. But 88 percent of Gardendale’s population is white, compared with 54 percent countywide, according to Census data. Just 7 percent of the city’s 14,000 residents live below the federal poverty line, compared with nearly 15 percent nationwide and 20 percent in all of Jefferson County.
Schools within the city’s boundaries have long educated black students bused in several miles from North Smithfield Manor, a small neighborhood outside the city that is tucked into hills between Interstates 22 and 65. In December 2015 — one month after U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala expressed concern that the city’s secession would impede Jefferson County’s desegregation efforts — Gardendale proposed allowing North Smithfield students to continue attending its schools.
Many black families in North Smithfield do not trust that promise. And they feel their input into decisions affecting Gardendale schools would be limited because they would have no right to vote for city school board members.
“We’d be just kind of outsiders allowed to be there, and that wouldn’t be a good thing,” said Sandra Ray, the grandmother of a middle-school student.
If Gardendale is allowed to separate, it stands to gain a prized asset: Its new high school, built in 2010 for about $50 million, a cost borne by all county taxpayers as part of a billion-dollar bond issue. The school’s sprawling grounds include a regional career-education center that serves students from several area high schools, including some that are overwhelmingly African American.
Jefferson County’s school superintendent, who opposes the secession, says the Gardendale high school facility plays a central role in the county’s plan for further desegregation: The county plans to rezone high school students from the diverse neighboring town of Fultondale, who have been going to school in a dilapidated, 1950s-era building, into Gardendale.
“I respect the right of Gardendale to form its own system, but not at the expense of students left behind,” said Craig Pouncey, the county schools chief. “There’s no doubt if we believe in the principle of the desegregation order, then we’ve got to continue to hold it together.”
The U.S. Justice Department also opposes Gardendale’s separation, according to court records, as does the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Both were expected to outline their legal arguments in briefs due to the court last week.
“Resegregation is something that gets talked about a lot as sort of like a drip of water over time, and it eventually creates some huge hole in the wall,” said Monique Lin-Luse, a lawyer for the Legal Defense Fund. “This is a situation where you look and say no, actually ... if we make a different choice, we can increase integration.”
Towns in Jefferson County have a long history of seeking independent school systems. In 1970, when federal courts finally made clear that this corner of Alabama had to dismantle segregation, four cities — each of them predominantly white — responded by immediately attempting to fence themselves off from the county school system.
Three of those cities succeeded, creating what were then mainly white independent school systems. It happened again in 1988, 2003 and 2005. With each separation, the county was left with a shrinking tax base and growing proportion of black students.
“Where does it end? It ends with what we have in Birmingham, and that is basically an all-black system that is inferior to the surrounding white systems,” said U.W. Clemon, a lawyer who grew up going to an all-black Jefferson County school.
Clemon worked on the county’s school desegregation case beginning in the 1960s, as a 23-year-old intern for the Legal Defense Fund. He stayed with it for more than a decade before he became Alabama’s first black federal judge in 1980. Three decades later, he retired, and now, at age 73, he is again working with the Legal Defense Fund to desegregate the school system he once attended, representing the black plaintiffs in the Jefferson County case.
He said the court allowed majority-white cities to secede in the recent past not because it was the right thing to do, but because the plaintiffs “basically rolled over and played dead.”
“This time,” he said, “we’re standing up against it.”