City is seeking to secede from county school system and operate two elementary schools
The court found that racially driven Facebook posts by secession leaders revealed their motivations
A predominantly white Alabama city cannot secede from a county school system that remains under a 1971 desegregation order, a federal appellate court ruled, citing racially driven Facebook posts as one factor in its decision.
Gardendale, Alabama, won a partial victory last summer when a federal judge ruled that, despite evidence that secession backers were motivated by changing racial demographics, the city could operate two elementary schools.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to the district court with instructions to “deny the motion to secede.” Presently, Gardendale is part of the school system in Jefferson County, whose county seat is Birmingham.
“We conclude that the district court committed no clear error in its findings of a discriminatory purpose and of impeding the desegregation of the Jefferson County Schools, but that it abused its discretion when it … allowed a partial secession,” the ruling stated.
The Gardendale Board of Education, which was formed in 2014 as part of the city’s effort to form its own school district, released a statement saying it was “deeply grieved” by the decision and that it intended only to create a “new, welcoming, and inclusive school system.”
“We know the heart and intent of this board and of the residents of Gardendale as a welcoming community, and we believe our actions reflect just that,” the statement said. “This is not the result we deserve, and the fight is not over.”
’Something totally different’
The school board said it felt the judges had misunderstood the evidence and misapplied the law.
“A decision that blames Gardendale for the comments of private citizens on social media is both contrary to the Constitution and a fundamental miscarriage of justice – and it is one we will continue to appeal,” the statement said.
School demographics, 2015-16
Snow Rogers Elementary
- 85% white
- 5% black
- 71% white
- 24% black
Bragg Middle School
- 67% white
- 29% black
- 71% white
- 27% black
- Source: US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit
But Judge William Pryor, who wrote the panel’s decision, said the intent of the social media posts was clear, and the authors of some of those posts were not merely private citizens, but “secession leaders” who would later serve in official capacities for the school board, two serving on the board itself and two serving on an advisory board.
Jefferson County Schools, according to the court, were 43% white and 47% black in 2015, which roughly reflects the county’s population. Gardendale is about 13% black, according to census data, and the court said three of the four schools in the city are at least 24% black.
The court felt that was the driving factor behind a would-be advisory board member’s Facebook post stating, “A look around at our community sporting events, our churches are great snapshots of our community. A look into our schools, and you’ll see something totally different.”
While other posts made in the school district’s Facebook group spoke of the importance of autonomy, diminishing class sizes, improving test scores and the need “to control (its) own revenue stream,” the court found secession leaders never discussed these concerns with the county, “and they struggled to identify specific deficiencies in the County schools.”
’There’s your redistribution of wealth’
There were also frequent complaints about nonresident students, especially those from the predominantly black North Smithfield community, increasing at “an alarming rate” without contributing financially, the court pointed out.
“We are using buses to transport non-residents into our schools (without additional funding) from as far away as Center Point (there’s your redistribution of wealth),” the would-be advisory board member said, later adding that Gardendale didn’t “want to become” Center Point, a town that was 99% white 48 years ago but is now about 33% white.
FOCUS Gardendale, which was formed to promote a city school system, distributed a flier featuring a white student and asking, “Which path will Gardendale choose?” The flier listed several predominantly black and predominantly white towns, calling the latter “some of the best places to live in the country,” the court said.
Though the plaintiffs insisted the Facebook comments were irrelevant, the appeals court ruled “the comments shed light on the motivations behind the creation and later actions of the Gardendale Board.”
“Most of the Facebook posts cited by the district court were made by the secession leaders who spearheaded the movement,” the ruling said. “The secession leaders were able to delete posts, approve or reject individuals who sought to join the page, block individuals who were previously approved to post on the page, and change the privacy settings of the page.”