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ANSWERS TO FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT LAWSUIT AGAINST SBISD

Civil Action No.4:21-cv-01997, Virginia Elizondo v. Spring Branch Independent School District, etal., in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division

 

Summary

This lawsuit was filed because the Spring Branch ISD has never elected a person of color to its board of trustees and the board members tend to cluster in the same area of the district. Currently six of the seven members live south of I-10 and five of the seven live in a single high school feeder area. This type of result, which is due to at - large elections, has been found to violate the law in many school districts throughout Texas.

 

By switching to single member districts, people throughout SBISD will have the opportunity to elect someone who lives in their area — someone who knows their schools, their neighborhood, and their experiences.

 

The switch to a single member plan will not affect the current members’ terms, they will be able to finish the term they were elected to serve. And the cost of elections will not increase.

 

In summary, the lawsuit is about fair representation throughout Spring Branch ISD.

 

1. Why was the lawsuit filed?
The procedure that SBISD currently uses to elect the members of its school board is illegal under federal law because it improperly dilutes the voting rights of its minority citizens and prevents their voices from being heard. For example, even though Hispanic students represent 58% of the SBISD student population, Hispanic residents represent 44% of the district population, and approximately 25% of the district’s voting age population is Hispanic (based on the 2010 census figures), under the current, at-large system for electing school board trustees, the voice of Hispanic voters is diluted, or overridden, by the votes of non-Hispanic voters. The proportion of Hispanic voters is expected to be even greater once the 2020 census data is available. In the current, at-large, system of electing all seven school board trustees based on the votes across the district, Hispanic voters are deprived of the opportunity to elect a proportional number of the members of the school board who reflect their interests.
Adoption of a plan to elect SBISD school board members from single -member districts therefore is long overdue.

2. What is the legal basis for the lawsuit?
The United States Constitution and Voting Rights Act guarantee all US citizens the right to vote in a meaningful way and prohibit practices that result in the denial or detriment to the right to vote on account of minority status. SBISD’s practice of electing the members of its school board at-large, based upon votes cast across the entire district, rather than electing at least some of its board members from individual or single-member districts, has the negative and legally improper effect of preventing the voices of its minority citizens from being heard, by diluting their voting strength. This results in irreparable harm to the voting rights guaranteed by law to all of the citizens in the district. Neither the diversity of district’s citizens nor the diversity of its students is reflected in the elected leadership of its board of trustees.
No person of color has ever been elected to serve on the SBISD school board , despite the fact that, in the past, highly-qualified candidates have had the overwhelming support of minority voters in the community. The Court is being asked to order SBISD to adopt a plan for electing its school board members that will no longer deprive minority voters of their voice in the composition of the school board.

3. What sort of plan could the Court be asked to order SBISD to adopt?
SBISD could be ordered to adopt a plan in which either all or some of its trustees are elected by the voters in single member districts.
A pure single member plan would divide the district into seven geographic areas, with the voters in each area electing a single trustee. Another option would be for SBISD to adopt what is often referred to as a “hybrid plan,” where certain trustees are elected from single member districts and others continue to be elected at large, based upon the vote of the entire district. For example, a plan with 5 single member districts and 2 at large positions, a so-called 5:2 plan, is one possibility.

4. In addition to the fact that SBISD’s current method of electing school board trustees is illegal, are there other reasons why it would be a good public policy for the district to change its method of electing its trustees?
Yes. This lawsuit was prompted because of representational disparity on the school board, resulting from the dilution of the voting strength of many of the district’s citizens. This disparity also is evident in the educational performance in the district’s schools. All the campuses that have reported low performance ratings in the district are located on the Northside of the district. Northside parents are choosing to transfer their children to Southside schools because of these performance ratings. Efforts have already begun by those opposing the lawsuit to keep Northside residents off of the school board to maintain homogeny. That is both divisive and discriminatory. Electing at least some of the school board trustees from single member districts would assure that every geographic area of the district will have a voice on the school board and the interests of the entirety of the district are taken into account. It is in the best interests of all SBISD voters, parents and children to have a board that is representative of all areas of the district, not just one. Currently, 6 of the board members are zoned to Southside schools and 5 are zoned to the same high school. This does not reflect the diversity of the district’s parents and children. Parents living near Spring Woods, Landrum, Northbrook and Spring Oaks Middle Schools (and Spring Woods and North Brook High Schools) deserve an equal voice.

5. If the Court orders SBISD to change its system for electing trustees, will that negatively affect the District?
No. Any new plan for electing school board trustees would only affect future elections; it would not change or affect the results of any past election. The cost of administering an election with single member districts will not differ in any meaningful way from the cost of conducting at-large elections.

6. Won’t the election of school board trustees from single member districts result in partisan, divided and ineffective leadership?
No. Nothing about electing school board trustees from single member district means that they will adopt a narrowly-partisan view or position about what policies are best for the school district as a whole. Election of our public officials from single member districts is extraordinarily common at the local, state and federal levels. Many school districts and community colleges elect their representatives from single member districts – not in at-large elections. For example, Fort Bend ISD and Lone Star Community College elect their trustees from single member districts.
The rationale for electing school board trustees from single member districts is that it assures that our elected officials are representative of the entire community, by affording voters in every part of the district with an effective voice in their election.

 

7. Have other Texas school districts been ordered to elect their trustees from single member districts and/or chosen to do so?
Yes. In the past twenty-five years many successful lawsuits have been filed against Texas school districts, requiring that they elect their trustees from single member districts. Examples of districts that have adopted single member plans include: Ballinger ISD, Brazosport ISD, Colorado ISD, Comal ISD, Comfort ISD, Crane ISD, Crockett Crosbyton ISD, Common CISD, Dawson ISD, Dickinson ISD, East Central ISD, Ector Co. ISD, Eden ISD, El Paso ISD, Fort Bend ISD, Grand Prairie ISD, Haskell ISD, Hitchcock ISD, Hondo ISD, Irving ISD, Kress ISD, Karnes City ISD, Kenedy ISD, Lamesa ISD, Lockney ISD, Lorenzo ISD, Lubbock ISD, Lytle ISD, Mason ISD, McCamey ISD, Medina Valley ISD, Menard ISD, Midland ISD, Northeast ISD, Plains ISD, Reagan Co. ISD, Richardson ISD, Runge ISD, , San Marcos CISD, Seminole ISD, South San Antonio ISD, Spur ISD, Tahoka ISD, Texas City ISD, Sterling City ISD, Tulia ISD, Victoria ISD, Winters ISD.

8. Who is paying for the lawsuit against SBISD?
Legal representation for the lawsuit is being provided on a pro bono or no charge basis because of the public interest in assuring that the process for electing school board trustees in the Spring Branch Independent School District complies with all applicable laws, including the Voting Rights Act and the United States Constitution.

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