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Despite Racial Motive, Judge Allows Alabama City To Secede From School District


Near Birmingham, Ala., a mostly white town called Gardendale wants to break off from its more diverse school district. This week, a federal judge found that the move was racially motivated. She also said it would send messages of racial inferiority and exclusion that, quote, "assail the dignity of black schoolchildren." Nevertheless, the judge allowed the split to go forward.

Earlier today, I spoke with Emma Brown, an education reporter for The Washington Post who's covering the story. She told us a little bit more about Gardendale and the story behind this week's ruling.

EMMA BROWN: Gardendale is a suburb of Birmingham. It's a bedroom community. It's 15 or 20 minutes outside of downtown. You know, it's not a wildly wealthy place, but it is more affluent than the county at large, and it is certainly more white than the county at large. It is a majority white city.

SHAPIRO: And what's the argument that they give for why they want to break away from the school district?

BROWN: The city of Gardendale has said that they are seeking local control, that they believe a smaller school system will be a better school system for their children. And they want to be able to control the tax dollars, frankly, that they're spending on their schools. They want to have tighter control over that money.

SHAPIRO: And what would that mean for the rest of the school district?

BROWN: Well, Gardendale is within Jefferson County, which is a large county outside of Birmingham that's, as you said, very diverse, and there are more African-American students there than white students. It is a county that has been under court-ordered desegregation for decades. And over those decades, a series of majority white cities have broken off, which is allowed under Alabama law. But what that has done is that it's left the county with a smaller tax base and with students who are increasingly low-income and a growing proportion of nonwhite students. So with each sort of successive splintering off, the racial dynamics and the socioeconomic dynamics of the county school system changes, making it more difficult for the county to finally desegregate.

SHAPIRO: So explain how the judge could give this the green light even after finding that it is racially motivated.

BROWN: Well, this has been really perplexing for civil rights advocates and for the lawyers who represent the black parents in this case. You know, she said, one, I'm concerned for black students in this city of Gardendale. There's a few hundred black students from - bused in from a few miles away. They've been bussed in for decades under this desegregation order as part of that effort to sort of achieve racial balance in schools. She didn't want them to bear the blame for her blocking this from happening. So that was one reason. And another reason is - she said, you know, there are people who truly are seeking local control, and that is an honorable desire and one that I don't want to get in the way of.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that the judge's ruling in favor of Gardendale's move to break away will give other similar areas in other parts of the country impetus to do the same thing?

BROWN: Well, the lawyers for the black families certainly believe so. And they say that there are already other white communities in Jefferson County who are considering breaking away and that this will embolden them because if there can be a city that, you know, is trying to break away with a racial motivation in a way that's going to get in the way of desegregation for the broader community and the judge still says yes, then it's hard to imagine a case where a judge would ever say no.

SHAPIRO: Emma Brown is an education reporter with The Washington Post. Thanks for joining us.

BROWN: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAUSCHKA SONG, "TRAFFIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.