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US Court of Appeals rejects Alabama school district attempt to secede on grounds of race
US Court of Appeals rejects Alabama school district attempt to secede on grounds of race

The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit [official website] on Wednesday denied [opinion, pdf] one group’s secession from an Alabama school district on racially discriminatory grounds, reversing a previous decision [opinion, pdf] by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama [official website].

The predominantly white city of Gardendale, Alabama, began seeking to separate itself from the Jefferson County public school system in 2012. Leaders of what the court refers to as a “grassroots movement” discussed changing racial demographics of their schools, and campaigned for the creation of a city school board and new taxes to support the proposed school system. In 2015, they asked the district court to permit it to operate a municipal school system.

Despite its findings that the newly founded Gardendale school board wanted to secede for a racially discriminatory purpose, and that the secession would impede the desegregation efforts of the Jefferson County Board of Education, the district court permitted a partial secession.

The three-judge panel on the court of appeals held that the district court overstepped its authority and abused its discretion when it permitted the partial secession, and when it devised its own secession plan without any prompting by either party.

The case turns on a 1971 decision that also concerned Jefferson County, Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education (Stout I), in which four predominantly white cities — Pleasant Grove, Vestavia Hills, Homewood, and Midfield — withdrew from the Jefferson County school system and formed municipal school districts. The court ordered the original Jefferson County to ” implement a student assignment plan” that “encompass[ed] the entire Jefferson County School District as it stood at the time of the original filing of [the] desegregation suit,” and declared “where the formulation of splinter school districts, albeit validly created under state law, have the effect of thwarting the implementation of a unitary school system, the district court may not . . . recognize their creation.” Additionally, it directed the district court to “implement fully” its desegregation order. This 1971 order still governs the Jefferson County school system.