Houston Landing goes deep.
With only a week left before the May 6 election, school-board candidate David Lopez and a team of volunteers set out to block walk in the Spring Branch neighborhoods north of Interstate 10, trying to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
Lopez and his close friend Kim Espinoza had a list of about 80 doors to knock on. If they were lucky enough to get a few minutes of face-time, the main questions were, do you have a plan to vote? And if so, will they vote for a candidate from their community?
Their goal: Try to get Lopez elected to the board of the Spring Branch Independent School District, which until recently has never had a person of color serve on its board. If Lopez won, he’d be the first Latino who hailed from underserved neighborhoods north of the interstate.
“It’s the future of our district that suffers,” Lopez said. “I’m concerned about the future of Spring Branch ISD, and especially the Latino students in this district, how they feel and how they are included when they can’t see themselves on their own board.”
Lopez, 29, lost the May election, his second attempt at joining the Spring Branch board of trustees. An educator from the district’s north side, Lopez is among those who have fought to provide representation for these communities, a battle that has also yielded a federal lawsuit alleging the current election system used by the district has led to a lack of representation.
Virginia Elizondo, a resident of the north side who unsuccessfully ran for the board twice, filed the lawsuit in 2021. After several recusals by assigned judges, a trial for this case is slated for October.
The lawsuit alleges Spring Branch is violating the Voting Rights Act by relying on an at-large election system in which every voter in the district can cast a ballot in every board race.
The system penalizes candidates from under-represented communities in Spring Branch, the suit alleges, yet school officials have refused to switch to a single-member district system that would give underserved neighborhoods a better chance to elect their preferred candidates.
Elizondo’s suit says Spring Branch’s use of at-large elections has “deprived tens of thousands of minority voters in SBISD of their voting rights guaranteed by the law.”
A trial for the lawsuit was scheduled for 2022, but after a continuance, and several recusals by assigned judges, it’s set for trial in October before Judge Sim Lake, said Lucas Henry, an attorney representing the school district.
Since its filing in 2021, some things have changed, including the election of Perez, the first trustee of color, but even so, others, such as the fact all trustees reside in the south side, remain the same.
Part of the district’s argument is that the school system has a history of academic and financial stability.
“People move to Spring Branch ISD for the schools,” said Henry. “So the school board believes that the current voting system has led to elections that have served the students very well over the last several decades.”
Henry is part of the current law firm representing the school district, Abernathy, Roeder, Boyd & Hullett, P.C. The firm also represented other districts facing similar litigation, including Frisco ISD, which recently won a case allowing them to keep at-large elections.
The demographics in Frisco ISD have changed over the years. More than 70 percent of students identified as white in 2003. That dropped to about 36 percent in the latest state snapshot of the 2020-2021 school year. The attorneys representing the district and its at-large elections system argued this trend would eventually, and naturally, lead to more minority candidates on the board.
But in the case of Spring Branch ISD, the district has historically had more students of color than white students. Going back to 1995, the oldest state snapshot of the district available, Spring Branch ISD had a total student population of 28,442, with 43 percent identified as white, 41 percent Hispanic, and 7 percent Black.
The number of Hispanic, or Latino, students continued to increase over the years, reaching 59 percent in 2018, and slightly decreasing to 58 percent in 2021.
According to TEA’s 2022 report cards, only two out of 16 elementary schools in the north achieve A ratings, 11 landed B scores, and three had C ratings. The elementary campuses’ demographics show an average of 80 percent Latino, or Hispanic, students.
Six out of 10 elementary campuses in the south side, achieved A ratings in 2022, two had a B rating and one had a C. The demographics in these schools show an average of 24 percent Latino, or Hispanic students and 51 percent white.
The lawsuit against SBISD argues that by switching to a single-member district system, voters from that particular area will be able to choose a candidate from within the community, who regardless of their race or ethnic background, will be better connected to the issues that matter to them.
See here, here, and here for some background on the lawsuit. Spring Branch ISD has been in the news for other reasons lately, none of them good. I don’t know what will happen with the lawsuit, but between the good news from Alabama and the reporting that eight of the nine appointed HISD Board of Managers are from the more affluent parts of HISD, it’s very much of interest and I will be watching. Go read the rest of the story, there’s a lot more there.