NAACP Legal Defense Fund appeals ruling allowing white Alabama town to secede from school district

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has a message for a mostly white Alabama town that got the green light from a federal judge to split from a racially-mixed county school district and start its own system — not so fast.

The civil rights organization has made good on its vow to appeal Judge Madeline Haikala's ruling in April that allowed the town of Gardendale to secede from the Jefferson County school district, even though "race was the motivating factor" for many supporters of the split.

"The District Court agreed that Gardendale's bid to form its own school district was designed to exclude black school children," said LDF's senior counsel Chris Kemmitt. "In filing this appeal, we are simply asking the Circuit Court to follow that finding to its logical conclusion and prohibit Gardendale from creating a separate, segregated school district at the expense of the broader community."

A spokesman for the Gardendale Board of Education said Wednesday they were preparing a response to the legal salvo from the LDF. But even before the LDF filed their appeal, Gardendale's plans to launch a new school system this fall were in limbo.

That's because Haikala stayed most of the provisions of her ruling in May after both sides indicated they would challenge it.

A suburb of Birmingham with a population of 14,000, Gardendale is 88 percent white. It is located in a county with a population of 658,000 that is roughly 53 percent white, 42 percent black — and has a long history of school segregationand racial strife.

Gardendale has for many years sought to create its own school system and city leaders spelled out their reasons on the Board of Education's web site.

"We believe that having local control over the city's schools will give the community a sense of pride and ownership," it says. "Research has demonstrated that schools benefit from being in a community that is directly invested in their success. From an economic standpoint, forming a city school system in Gardendale should allow us to flourish."

But in her decision, Haikala contended that "race was a motivating factor in Gardendale's decision to separate from the Jefferson County public school system."

"The record demonstrates that some Gardendale citizens are concerned because the racial demographics in Gardendale are shifting, and they worry that Gardendale, like its neighbor Center Point, may become a predominantly black city," she wrote. "These citizens prefer a predominantly white city."

In the end, however, Haikala allowed the split to be fair to the parents in Gardendale "who support a municipal separation for reasons that have nothing to do with race."

But Haikala also reserved the right to reverse her decision if Gardendale reverted back to its segregated past.

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