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Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

May 9, 2017

LINDA STOUT, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
JEFFERSON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Intervenor, GARDENDALE CITY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant-Intervenor.

          SUPPLEMENTAL MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The private plaintiffs have asked the Court to reconsider the remedy that the Court set out in its April 24, 2017 Memorandum Opinion in this case. Based on arguments that the plaintiffs present in support of their motion to reconsider, the Court concludes that it may not have adequately explained the rationale for the remedy. The Court thanks the private plaintiffs for giving the Court an opportunity to try to bring greater clarity to its decision. In this supplement to the April 24, 2017 opinion, the Court states in greater detail the reasons for the remedy, tying aspects of the remedy to the legal analysis that appears in pages 137-180 of the April 24 opinion. The Court then explains why the plaintiffs' arguments in support of their motion for reconsideration do not persuade the Court.

         In a nutshell, under the particular circumstances of this case and on the record that the parties presented to the Court, the Court concluded that the Gardendale Board of Education committed an independent constitutional violation in which the Jefferson County Board of Education played no role. The Court also found that with respect to the Gardendale zone and the families from North Smithfield who are part of the Gardendale zone, the Jefferson County Board of Education has followed the student assignment and facility requirements in the 1971 desegregation order in good faith.

         Given these findings, the Court had to fashion an equitable remedy that allows Jefferson County to continue its efforts to fully comply with the 1971 desegregation order while constraining Gardendale and compelling the Gardendale Board of Education to comply with the Fourteenth Amendment. To accomplish these competing obligations, the Court decided to allow the Gardendale Board to separate partially from Jefferson County under a new desegregation order that is tailored specifically to the Gardendale Board's constitutional violation. The remedy provides to the victims of racially discriminatory conduct and to the non- culpable Jefferson County Board of Education and the 33, 000 non-Gardendale students whom the Board serves the greatest level of protection that the Court believes is available under the current state of the law by securing for the Jefferson County Board the tools of desegregation that the Jefferson County Board has successfully implemented and providing to the families in North Smithfield the flexibility to choose the public schools that they believe will best serve their children.

         The practical result may appear counter-intuitive, and the remedy admittedly is not ideal. But as the Court stated in the April 24 opinion, this situation is complex, and there are no ideal remedies. Of the available remedial options, the Court selected the option that it believes has the greatest ability to address all of the interests involved. The Court believes that the remedy urged by the private plaintiffs-outright denial of Gardendale's motion to separate-though warranted and effective in the early stages of this desegregation order's implementation, under the particular circumstances now presented, likely would produce a shortlived victory that ultimately would do more harm than good to Jefferson County's efforts to comply with the Fourteenth Amendment in the final stages of federal supervision.

         A. The Court's Equitable Remedy

         The Court found that the private plaintiffs and the Department of Justice established that race motivated separation organizers and some Gardendale residents who support the formation of a municipal school district for the City of Gardendale. Given these findings, the private plaintiffs argue that the Court should dissolve the Gardendale Board and eliminate the municipal school system.

         Had the Court recently entered a desegregation decree in this case, that would be the obvious and easy solution. Under those circumstances, the Court would know that the county, including Gardendale, would be subject to federal supervision for years, and the Court would have the ability to monitor the entire county, including Gardendale, for an extended period of time.

         That is not the case here. Here, the desegregation order governing the Jefferson County Board of Education is 45 years old, and federal oversight of the Jefferson County Board of Education may be nearing an end, at least with respect to student assignments and facilities, two of the Green desegregation factors. To enable it to monitor student assignments (particularly zoning and interdistrict transfers) in the public schools in Gardendale in the years ahead and to make sure that Jefferson County retains the benefit of the Gardendale high school facility that Jefferson County built to facilitate desegregation, the Court decided to place the Gardendale Board under a new desegregation order that creates a fresh start for federal supervision of all aspects of the public schools in Gardendale.

         Several legal principles converge to produce this result. The first concerns the nature of the remedy. The remedy is equitable. Equity requires the balancing of the interests of all of the parties who are affected by the remedy. While the interests of the victims weigh heavily in the analysis, the Court also must consider the interests of others, including bystanders, and the Court must choose from alternative options the remedy that the Court believes best fulfills the purposes of this desegregation litigation. (See Doc. 1141, pp. 22-27; 40-43) (discussing Stout II and Swann). Here, the bystanders are the 33, 000 public school students in the Jefferson County district who live outside of Gardendale's municipal boundaries (and their parents) and the students who reside in the City of Gardendale whose parents supported separation for reasons that have nothing to do with race (some subset of the 2, 250 public school students who reside within the City of Gardendale). (Doc. 1141, pp. 139 n. 79, 182-83). An equitable remedy must balance “individual and collective interests” and must be “reasonable, feasible and workable.” Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Educ., 402 U.S. 1, 16, 31 (1971) (discussed in Doc. 1141 at p. 23).

         The 33, 000 students who live outside of Gardendale's municipal limits may be nearing the end of federal supervision of student assignments and facilities. As the Court explained in its opinion, the Supreme Court has held that a federal court's “‘end purpose' in a public school desegregation case is ‘to remedy the [constitutional] violation and, in addition, to restore [to] state and local authorities' the control of their public schools.” (Doc. 1141, pp. 54-55) (quoting Freeman v. Pitts, 503 U.S. 467, 489 (1992)). “Returning schools to the control of local authorities at the earliest practicable date is essential to restore [local authorities'] true accountability in our governmental system.'” Freeman, 503 U.S. at 490 (quoted in Doc. 1141, p. 55). The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals similarly has instructed the district courts in this circuit that “complete return to local control of school systems is the ultimate goal of all judicial supervision because [f]rom the very first, federal supervision of local school systems was intended as a temporary measure to remedy past discrimination, and desegregation decrees are not intended to operate in perpetuity.” (Doc. 1141, p. 61) (quoting N.A.A.C.P., Jacksonville Branch v. Duval Cty. Sch., 273 F.3d 960, 967 (11th Cir. 2001)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         In the Eleventh Circuit, a district court must release a school district from federal supervision when “a formerly dual school system” proves “that it has (1) complied in good faith with the desegregation decree, and (2) eliminated the vestiges of prior de jure segregation to the extent practicable.” (Doc. 1141, p. 60) (quoting Duval County, 273 F.2d at 966). The system also must demonstrate that the termination of federal court oversight will not “result in the dismantlement of the [desegregation plan] or any affirmative action by the [school board] to undermine the unitary system.” Bd. of Educ. of Oklahoma City Pub. Sch. v. Dowell, 498 U.S. 237, 241 (1991) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoted in Doc. 1141, p. 50).

         In Freeman, the United States Supreme Court held that a district court may consider a school district's request to be released from federal supervision on a gradual basis. Freeman, 503 U.S. at 490-92. The Supreme Court stated:

We hold that, in the course of supervising desegregation plans, federal courts have the authority to relinquish supervision and control of school districts in incremental stages, before full compliance has been achieved in every area of school operations. While retaining jurisdiction over the case, the court may determine that it will not order further remedies in areas where the school district is in compliance with the decree. That is to say, upon a finding that a school system subject to a court-supervised desegregation plan is in compliance in some but not all areas, the court in appropriate cases may return control to the school system in those areas where compliance has been achieved, limiting further judicial supervision to operations that are not yet in full compliance with the court decree. In particular, the district court may determine that it will not order further remedies in the area of student assignments where racial imbalance is not traceable, in a proximate way, to constitutional violations.
A court's discretion to order the incremental withdrawal of its supervision in a school desegregation case must be exercised in a manner consistent with the purposes and objectives of its equitable power. Among the factors which must inform the sound discretion of the court in ordering partial withdrawal are the following: whether there has been full and satisfactory compliance with the decree in those aspects of the system where supervision is to be withdrawn; whether retention of judicial control is necessary or practicable to achieve compliance with the decree in other facets of the school system; and whether the school district has demonstrated, to the public and to the parents and students of the once disfavored race, its good-faith commitment to the whole of the court's decree and to those provisions of the law and the Constitution that were the predicate for judicial intervention in the first instance.
In considering these factors, a court should give particular attention to the school system's record of compliance. A school system is better positioned to demonstrate its good-faith commitment to a constitutional course of action when its policies form a consistent pattern of lawful conduct directed to eliminating earlier violations. And, with the passage of time, the degree to which racial imbalances continue to represent vestiges of a constitutional violation may diminish, and the practicability and efficacy of various remedies can be evaluated with more precision.
These are the premises that guided our formulation in Dowell of the duties of a district court during the final phases of a desegregation case: “The District Court should address itself to whether the Board had complied in good faith with the desegregation decree since it was entered, and whether the vestiges of past discrimination had been eliminated to the extent practicable.” 498 U.S., at 249-250, 111 S.Ct., at 637-638.

Freeman, 503 U.S. at 490-92.

         In the report that it filed with the Court in February 2015, the Jefferson County Board of Education stated that it was “hopeful that, after comprehensive review of the district and its schools, the parties and the Court will agree that the district has achieved unitary status as to student assignment.” (Doc. 998, p. 9).

         Jefferson County acknowledged that “a few of [its] schools have either a largely all white student population (such as those in the Corner attendance zone) or a largely all African American student population (such as those in the Center [P]oint attendance zone)” but asserted that “most of the schools fall somewhere in the middle.” (Doc. 998, p. 8).

         The student assignment statistics for the Jefferson County district for the 2015-16 school year reflect that a number of schools have well-integrated student bodies, and a number of schools have student bodies that are predominantly white or predominantly black. (See Doc. 1129-2). The Eleventh Circuit has held:

[i]f a school board can prove that . . . factors [which are not the result of segregation] have substantially caused current racial imbalances in its schools, it overcomes the presumption that segregative intent is the cause, and there is no constitutional violation. Where there is no constitutional violation, a school board is under no duty to remedy racial imbalances.

Duval County, 273 F.3d at 966 (quoted in Doc. 1141, p. 61). In addition, “even when remedying the effects of de jure segregation, the Constitution does not require rigid racial ratios.” Id. at 967 (quoted in Doc. 1141, p. 61).

         Thus, if the Jefferson County Board is able to prove that the racial imbalances in some of the schools in the district are not the consequence of segregative intent, then the Jefferson County Board will have no obligation to remedy those imbalances. And if Jefferson County also proves that it has complied in good faith with the desegregation order's provisions regarding student assignments and that it will continue to try to fulfill the aims of the desegregation order to the best of its ability even after the Court dissolves the order, then the Court must determine whether it is appropriate to release Jefferson County from federal supervision of student assignments.

         The record indicates that the Jefferson County Board has acted in good faith with respect to zoning and racial desegregation transfers in the Gardendale zone. The Court still has to examine whether the Jefferson County Board has complied in good faith with its zoning and desegregation transfer obligations throughout the entire district. The Court also must determine whether termination of supervision of student assignments would adversely impact Jefferson County's ability to fulfill its obligations with respect to other Green factors. The Jefferson County Board believes that at the end of this analysis, the parties and the Court will agree that the county “has achieved unitary status as to student assignment.” In fashioning a remedy, the Court must be cognizant of that possibility.

         With respect to facilities, in its 2015 report, the Jefferson County Board stated that although there “are st ill f acilit y -related needs in the Jefferson County system, ” the Board's “most recent capital improvement initiative, made possible by a bond issue by the Jefferson County Commission, addressed most of the [county's] critical needs and made it possible to provide students in all communities with the benefit of attending modern, first class facilities.” (Doc. 998, pp. 13-14). The Jefferson County Board stated that under the Court's supervision, “[n]ew high schools were constructed or major renovations were undertaken in almost every zone that did not then have a modern high school.” The Board asserted that it “is hopeful that partial unitary status might be appropriate” as to those facilities. (Doc. 998, p. 14).

         Jefferson County's potential ability to obtain a release from federal supervision of student assignments and facilities in the near future weighed heavily in the Court's decision. If the Court were simply to deny Gardendale's motion to separate and the schools in the Gardendale zone were to remain under the control of the Jefferson County Board, and if, in the next year or two, the Jefferson County Board were able to prove that it is entitled under the law to a termination of supervision as to student assignments and high school facilities, then the Court would relinquish control over all zoning, racial desegregation transfers, and high school facilities in the Jefferson County system, including the Gardendale zone. If the Jefferson County Board is entitled under the law to be released from supervision of student assignments and high school facilities, then under equitable principles, the Court cannot withhold that relief and essentially punish the Jefferson County Board and the tens of thousands of families to whom the Jefferson County Board is responsible for a constitutional violation committed by some citizens in Gardendale. Equity will not permit that result.

         Thus, if the Court were to deny Gardendale's motion to separate and then release Jefferson County from supervision of students assignments and facilities in one or two years, then zoning, student transfers, and the high school in the Gardendale feeder pattern would be vulnerable again. The citizens of Gardendale who have tried to separate from Jefferson County for years would have the ability under Alabama law to try once again to take over the public schools in the City of Gardendale, and this time, there would be no federal desegregation order to protect zoning, interdistrict transfers, and the Gardendale high school facility. The struggle between the Jefferson County district and the Gardendale district would resume, and, under the circumstances of this case, Alabama law would allow the citizens of Gardendale to take free of charge a $50 million high school facility that the Jefferson County Board built for all of the students in Jefferson County to facilitate desegregation of the district's high schools. Again, the Court currently does not have before it information that allows it to determine just how close Jefferson County may be to the end of supervision of student assignments and facilities, but in fashioning an equitable remedy, the Court must take into account the realistic possibility that federal supervision of the Jefferson County Board with respect to zoning, transfers, and high school facilities may end within the next few years.[1]

         The Court decided that the better option is to allow Gardendale to operate the two elementary schools in the City of Gardendale and to place the Gardendale Board under a new, separate desegregation order tailored to the misconduct that warrants federal oversight. (Doc. 1141, pp. 185-86). The Court may impose a desegregation order only on a school board; remedial orders in public school desegregation cases address official action. (See Doc. 1141, p. 55) (quoting Freeman, 503 U.S. at 495).[2] As the Court stated in its opinion, the new 2017 Gardendale desegregation order will require the Gardendale Board to redraw the boundaries for the two elementary schools and will include interdistrict transfer provisions. (Doc. 1141, pp. 185-86). In addition, if Gardendale operates those two schools in good faith for three years, then Gardendale may renew its motion for leave to operate a K-12 district. (Doc. 1141, p. 186). If the Court were to grant that motion based on the record that the Gardendale Board makes between now and then, then the Gardendale Board would have to raise tens of millions of dollars either to pay Jefferson County for the current Gardendale High School facility or to build its own high school facility.[3] The Court anticipates that if, in three years, it were to grant a renewed motion for a K-12 district for the City of Gardendale, then the Court would supervise that district for a minimum of five years, meaning that the Gardendale district would be under federal supervision through at least the 2024-25 academic year. There is a reasonable possibility that federal supervision of the Jefferson County Board, at least with respect to student assignments, will end years before then. Borrowing the words of the Gardendale Board's motion to separate, the Gardendale district will be under the new 2017 desegregation order for “the indefinite future, ” creating for the citizens of Gardendale the very federal oversight that they had hoped to avoid by separating from Jefferson County. That is an equitable result.

         In balancing the equities, the Court determined that these consequences are feasible, fair, and reasonable.

         B. The Plaintiffs' Motion to Reconsider

         The private plaintiffs challenge the feasibility and efficacy of the equitable remedy and offer a number of arguments to support their contentions. The Court considers each argument in turn.

         1. Feasibility of the Equitable Remedy

         The private plaintiffs argue that the equitable remedy that the Court has fashioned is unworkable and will have a negative impact on Jefferson County's ability to fulfill its obligations under the 1971 desegregation order. The plaintiffs disagree with the Court's analysis of the practical considerations that prompted the Court to allow a partial separation.

         The plaintiffs acknowledge that the Court found that the Gardendale district “violated the Equal Protection Clause anew” because the words and actions associated with Gardendale's separation effort sent a message of inferiority to black public school students, particularly those in North Smithfield and Center Point. (Doc. 1151, p. 18; see also Doc. 1141, pp. 175-80). The plaintiffs contend that “[t]he Court's remedy was obligated to address that identified constitutional violation.” (Doc. 1151, p. 18).

         That is precisely what the Court has done. The Court has ordered that the Gardendale District be placed under a brand new desegregation order-not a 45-year-old order that Supreme Court precedent requires the Court to dissolve “at the earliest practicable date.” Freeman, 503 U.S. at 490. Instead, the Gardendale Board will operate under a brand new desegregation order that is tailored to the constitutional violation in this case. The private plaintiffs believe that outright denial of Gardendale's motion to separate is the only proper remedy, and they reject each of the practical considerations that caused the Court to decide to fashion a new desegregation order. The Court is not persuaded by the private plaintiffs' arguments concerning those practical considerations.

         a. The Victims of Gardendale's Constitutional Violation

          With respect to the harm to black students from North Smithfield and other areas outside of the City of Gardendale whom some of the residents of Gardendale wanted to exclude from their school district, the Court recognized in the April 24 opinion that as a practical matter, it does not have a tool available that will enable it to erase the message of inferiority conveyed by the conduct of the Gardendale Board and completely prevent children in North Smithfield and Center Point from experiencing that message again in the years ahead. If the Court were to deny separation outright, and the schools in the Gardendale zone were to remain under the control of the Jefferson County Board, then the students from North Smithfield would likely experience resentment from the Gardendale citizens who lost their ability under Alabama law to separate. (Doc. 1141, pp. 181-82).[4] The message would be even louder from the families who sell their homes and leave Gardendale because they cannot have the municipal school system that they want. Emails that the Court received from Gardendale residents after the bench trial indicate that Gardendale residents already have made plans to move if the Gardendale Board cannot proceed with its plan to separate. (Doc. 1143-1, pp. 23-24; Doc. 1147-1, p. 2). The Court does not have the power under the law to prevent families from leaving Gardendale and moving to other municipal districts in Jefferson County.

         Under these circumstances, the Court reasoned that it would be unfair to require students from North Smithfield to attend Bragg Middle School or Gardendale High School, the schools to which they currently are zoned. Therefore, the Court's remedy allows parents from North Smithfield to select the public school that they believe is best for their children. Under the Court's April 24 order, for the 2017-18 school year, parents and students in North Smithfield may select their top two preferences for schools in the Jefferson County district, and Jefferson County must place the students in one of those two schools and provide transportation to them. (Doc. 1141, p. 187). This is true even for elementary school students who live in North Smithfield, even though there has been no constitutional violation with respect to the elementary school for which they currently are zoned. (Doc. 1141, p. 187 n. 94). There are no restrictions on this choice. Unlike limits on majority-to-minority transfers in the 1971 desegregation order, there is no requirement that the school that a parent in North Smithfield selects improves the racial balance in the sending or receiving school.

         And unlike the majority-to-minority transfer provision in the 1971 desegregation order, the Court's remedy requires the Jefferson County Board of Education to make space available for children from North Smithfield in one of the two schools that their parents select. The order also provides that parents from North Smithfield must be part of the discussion about permanent zoning for students from North Smithfield. (See Doc. 1141, p. 188).

         The plaintiffs argue that this remedy is not adequate. They assert:

At least now, Black residents of North Smithfield Manor have a voice on the [Jefferson County Board of Education], and its Superintendent visits their community and addresses their concerns. As the Court has noted, North Smithfield parents on the Gardendale School Board will have no voice. The class members are rightly frustrated and concerned that, in three years, Gardendale High School will either (1) not be available to them or (2) be available, but operated by the Gardendale Board of Education in which they have no representative voice and no expectations of fair treatment.

(Doc. 1151, pp. 9-10).[5] This argument overlooks a number of aspects of the Court's remedy.

         Under the Court's remedy, students from the community of North Smithfield will never have to attend a school administered by the Gardendale Board of Education. Using the interdistrict transfer provision that will appear in the Gardendale desegregation order, parents of students from North Smithfield may choose to send their children to a school that the Gardendale Board of Education operates, but they never will be zoned for a school that the Gardendale Board of Education operates. The Jefferson County Board of Education will operate Bragg Middle School and Gardendale High School for at least the next three years. In three years, if the Gardendale Board files a renewed motion to operate a middle school and a high school, and the Court grants the motion, then the Gardendale Board will have to pay the Jefferson County Board for the Gardendale High School facility, supplying funds for Jefferson County to build a new high school facility, one that logically would serve students from Fultondale, Mount Olive, the City of Graysville, the community of Brookside, and the community of North Smithfield. Alternatively, if the Gardendale Board files a renewed motion to operate a middle school and a high school, and the Court grants the motion, then the Gardendale Board will have to build its own high school facility. That would leave the current Gardendale High School facility for students from Fultondale, Mount Olive, the City of Graysville, the community of Brookside, and the community of North Smithfield.

         Either way, if parents from North Smithfield elect to have their community zoned for the Jefferson County high school feeder pattern that is geographically closest to the schools in the current Gardendale feeder pattern, then students from North Smithfield will have the opportunity to attend a new state-of-the-art high school facility that houses a desegregated student population. If parents from North Smithfield urge the Court to zone the North Smithfield community permanently for another feeder pattern like the Mortimer Jordan feeder pattern or the Corner feeder pattern, then students from North Smithfield still will attend a state-of-the-art facility, and they will improve the diversity of the student populations in either feeder pattern, helping Jefferson County to fulfill its constitutional obligation to maintain, to the best of its ability, desegregated schools, even after the conclusion of federal oversight of student assignments. That is an equitable remedy, and that remedy advances Jefferson County's ability to comply with the Fourteenth Amendment.

         b. The 33, 000 Non-Gardendale Jefferson County Students

          With respect to the interests of the 33, 000 non-Gardendale students in the Jefferson County school system and the Court's effort to balance their interests with the interests of the 2, 250 students in Gardendale, the plaintiffs argue that any interests that non-Gardendale students have “must give way to Jefferson County's constitutional obligation to desegregate.” (Doc. 1151, p. 10). In addition, the plaintiffs contend that the Court's resolution of the dispute concerning the Gardendale High School facility “hinders [Jefferson County's] ability to appropriately address facilities and student assignment in a comprehensive desegregation plan” because the Court's plan for the high school facility “delays relief for the Fultondale students” who currently go to school in a “dilapidated vestige of the former dual-system” and “who have already waited far too long for an equitable education experience.” (Doc. 1151, pp. 10-11).

         As for Jefferson County's obligation to desegregate, the evidence that the parties presented at trial indicates that in the past few years, Jefferson County has made strides toward ...


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