The Eleventh Circuit recently overturned a district court’s decision to permit a public high school in a predominantly white city in Alabama to secede from the Jefferson County school system. See Stout v. Jefferson Cty. Bd. of Educ., 882 F.3d 988 (11th Cir. 2018). Although the district court found that the decision to secede violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it was an intentional effort to exclude black students, the district court nonetheless approved secession on a gradual basis. See Stout v. Jefferson Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 2015 F. Supp. 3d 1092 (N.D. Ala. 2017).
In 2012, residents of the City of Gardendale (more than 83 percent of whom are white) sought to create a municipal school system separate and apart from the Jefferson County school system. At the time, the schools within the City of Gardendale were operated by the Jefferson County Board of Education pursuant to a desegregation order issued by the district court in 1971. The goal of the district court’s desegregation order was to provide an equal education to all students regardless of race. To attain that goal, the desegregation order permitted black students attending majority black schools in the Jefferson County school system to transfer to predominantly white schools within that school system. Because of that “transfer” provision, the schools in the City of Gardendale had become far more racially diverse than they otherwise would have been. For example, Gardendale High School was approximately 71 percent white and 27 percent black.
Residents of the City of Gardendale organized a campaign to create a municipal school system for Gardendale in order to have “better control over the geographic composition of the student body [and] protection against . . . actions . . . that might not be in [Gardendale’s] best interests.” The campaign succeeded, and in 2014 the Gardendale City Council adopted an ordinance that established the Gardendale City School System and the Gardendale Board of Education. The Gardendale Board of Education was given the power and authority to manage the Gardendale City School System. In December 2015, the Gardendale Board of Education sought the district court’s approval of its proposed secession plan. Significantly, the proposed secession plan eliminated the “transfer” provision in the district court’s 1971 desegregation order and redrew the school attendance lines at the city limits.
The district court identified several facts (including the proposed secession plan itself) which suggested that secession was motived by race discrimination. The district court referred to a social media post by a board member who complained about the racial diversity within the schools in Gardendale. He stated that, “A look around at our sporting events, our churches, are great snapshots of our community. A look into our schools, and you’ll see something totally different.” The district court also referred to a flyer distributed by secession leaders. The flyer depicted a white elementary student and asked, “Which path will Gardendale choose?” It then listed several well-integrated or predominantly black cities “that chose NOT to form their own school system” and several predominantly white cities that “chose to form and support their own school system.” The predominantly white cities were described as “some of the best places to live in the country.” However, despite evidence of racist motives, the district court permitted two elementary schools to secede immediately, and the remaining schools to secede gradually. The Jefferson County Board of Education appealed the district court’s decision.
The Eleventh Circuit held that the district court correctly concluded that secession was motivated by race discrimination and would impede the district court’s 1971 desegregation order, but given those factual findings, the district court erred by permitting partial secession. The Eleventh Circuit explained that “[t]he 1971 [desegregation] order [was] issued to ensure that the Jefferson County Board ‘eliminate[d] the vestiges of the unconstitutional de jure system.’” Since the “motion to amend that order … [was] motivated by invidious discrimination, the district court was obliged to deny the motion.”
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