Rick Bowmer/AP

The predominately white, prosperous city of Gardendale hopes to secede from its poorer, more diverse school district.

Throughout this week, CityLab is running a series on borders—both real and imagined—and what draws so many of us to places on the edge.

Gardendale, Alabama, sits just north of Birmingham. Though it’s not the wealthiest suburb—it’s been described by The Washington Post as a town of modest homes, old coal mines, and strip malls—its residents are better off than many in Jefferson County. While 20 percent of county residents live below the federal poverty line, that number is only 7 percent in Gardendale. And 88 percent of Gardendale is white, compared to 54 percent countywide.

Gardendale’s residents are seeking to break from the county school system to form their own district within county lines. The city voted to raise its property taxes for this purpose, and in 2014 it formed its own school board and appointed a superintendent. Gardendale officials say that the desired secession is about local control over resources, not race. “It’s keeping our tax dollars here with our kids, rather than sharing them with kids all over Jefferson County,” Mayor Stan Hogeland told The Washington Post. The resources at stake are not negligible. For one, the career-education center at Gardendale’s new $50 million high school (funded by taxpayers countywide), which has been serving students from outside the city, could no longer offer that opportunity to non-Gardendale teens.

Intentional or not, such “splintering” of school districts has been found to increase racial segregation. Historically, school segregation in the South was most pronounced within a single district, with white and black students attending different district schools. Today, segregation is largely a product of boundaries between districts. This means that the splintered districts and the areas they leave behind have racially identifiable school systems. And in this scenario, desegregation is harder to accomplish, since it’s not simply a matter of transferring students from one school to another.

Jefferson County is a prime example of the splintering phenomenon; its cities have been splitting off for decades. The county used to be a single school district. (Countywide school districts were often found in the South, in contrast to the North or Midwest, which have always had a greater number of districts.) In 1959, the white enclave of Mountain Brook separated from the Jefferson County school system. A number of predominately white, wealthier areas have since done the same. Today, there are 11 school districts distinct from the larger Jefferson County district.

Erica Frankenberg, a Penn State professor who has studied school segregation in Jefferson County and nationwide, found in a 2009 study that this splintering maintains or enhances the privileged position of some of the populations that separate. While this might sound beneficial for those populations, research is clear that school segregation benefits no one, white children included.

It might seem surprising that cities in Jefferson County have been allowed to strike out on their own. An Alabama law permits cities with a population of at least 5,000 to form their own school districts. There are plenty of these within Jefferson County, which has a population of over 650,000. And though Jefferson County is one of dozens of school systems that federal courts oversee with a mandate to increase racial integration, in the past no one objected when its cities fragmented. The county has been under this order since 1971, when several black plaintiffs sued over school segregation in a federal court and won.     

This time, the Jefferson County School System opposes the move, as do the U.S. Department of Justice and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Frankenberg says the Gardendale case is encouraging in that the court is considering how the formation of this new, splintered district would affect desegregation efforts. A federal district judge will decide any day whether to block Gardendale’s secession.

“If this is allowed to go through, oversight of the new district will be needed,” Frankenberg says. While Gardendale has promised, for instance, to allow 300 black students from a neighboring area to remain in its schools, Frankenberg notes that “a lot of districts make promises about racial parity that don’t come to fruition.”

The practice of school district secession has been on the rise in the past decade, particularly in the South. Cases similar to that of Jefferson County have occurred in Mobile, East Baton Rouge, and Memphis. In the Memphis case, the school board voted in 2010 to abandon its charter and merge with the wealthier suburban area. Suburban residents objected mightily, and persuaded the state legislature to change the law so that their districts could secede. Six mostly white districts then splintered from Memphis.   

Frankenberg adds that the Obama administration has worked to reinvigorate the monitoring of systems that still have open desegregation cases. Under a new administration less likely to continue with integration efforts, recent policies may lose momentum. Frankenberg says that states can take more of a lead in incentivizing integration, especially due to the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind and gives more power to states. “States, for example, could help to promote inter-district magnet schools to further integration,” she says. The Secretary of Education John King also announced a voluntary funding program for local integration efforts last month.

Fundamentally, Frankenberg adds, it’s important to keep integration efforts alive in any form. “This keeps the door open for when conditions might be more favorable,” she says. “It’s easier to change a diversity program than to start it again from scratch.”

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