Lawsuit on SBISD Elections
In 2021, Spring Branch ISD and its Board of Trustees were sued in federal court under the Voting Rights Act. In this lawsuit, the Plaintiff seeks a court order that would require SBISD to change its system for electing school board trustees. SBISD currently utilizes an “at-large” election system, meaning that trustees can live anywhere within the District. The Plaintiff argues that the at-large system violates the Voting Rights Act by depriving Hispanic voters of an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice. The Plaintiff wants the court to require the District to adopt a “single-member district” system wherein SBISD would be divided into seven voting districts, and each voting district would elect a trustee to the Board. SBISD maintains that its at-large system does not violate the voting rights act, and is the most appropriate and effective means of governance for the District.
The case was set for a possible trial on October 3, 2022, before Judge Kenneth Hoyt in Houston. However, only a few weeks before the potential trial, Judge Hoyt recused himself and the case was transferred to Judge Charles Eskridge who also recused himself from the case. The case was then transferred to Judge Sim Lake. These transfers erased all scheduled court dates for the case. SBISD is awaiting instructions from the new judge to determine when trial will happen. In the meantime, SBISD continues to prepare for trial and will do all it can to zealously defend our “at-large” system. The District’s Board of Trustees will continue to lead the District as usual throughout this process and will provide updates as they become available.
Additional background information about this lawsuit is listed below.
1. What does the Plaintiff’s lawsuit seek to achieve?
The Plaintiff seeks to force the District to change its at-large system of electing trustees to a single-member district system.
2. What is the difference between an at-large system and a single-member district system of electing trustees?
Under an at-large system, all eligible voters of the community vote for all trustees. An at-large system is similar to how Texans vote for candidates in the U.S. Senate where all voters elect both Senate positions.
Under a single-member district system, the district is divided into geographic subunits (i.e., single-member districts). Only voters who reside within a single-member district may vote for the candidates running for election for that single-member district. A single-member district is similar to how Texans vote for candidates in the U.S. House of Representatives where voters only vote for the person running for their congressional district, not other congressional districts in Texas.
3. How has the school district responded to the lawsuit?
In August, the SBISD Board of Trustees (“Board”) filed an Answer to Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint. The Board is opposed to utilizing a single-member district system and is actively defending its at-large system.
4. Has there been any change to the District’s current election system for members of the school board?
No. There has been no decision to change the District’s current system of at-large elections.
5. What is the Board’s official position regarding Elizondo v. SBISD?
As reflected in the Board’s filed Answer to Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint, SBISD takes the position that elections for school board trustees in Texas are, by default, an at-large system, which is the most widely used form of electing trustees among Texas school districts by a significant margin. SBISD rejects Plaintiff’s argument that all school board elections in SBISD are marked by a pattern of racially-polarized voting. SBISD maintains that it has not enacted any barriers to voting. Finally, SBISD believes there are sound, non-race-based policy reasons for maintaining an at-large voting system.
6. Who is representing the Board in this lawsuit?
SBISD’s long-time legal counsel, attorneys from Thompson & Horton LLP, represented the district at the start of the lawsuit. After listening to community concerns about its current election system, the Board requested that Thompson & Horton provide a presentation on various electoral systems utilized in the State of Texas at a meeting in January 2020. The January 2020 presentation included data that showed that SBISD’s current system of at-large elections is similar to the majority of school board systems in Texas.
Independent of the Board’s request for this presentation, some community members misunderstood the purpose of the January 2020 presentation. As a result, lies were put forth about Thompson & Horton, including that the firm will financially benefit from the district converting to single-member districts. These lies served to distract the community from the serious matters addressed in this case.
Therefore, on December 3, 2021, Thompson & Horton informed the Board of their desire to withdraw as counsel in Elizondo v. SBISD. Thompson & Horton believed this request was in the SBISD’s best interests. The firm believed the issues surrounding this lawsuit were very important and should be the focus of the community rather than on who was serving as legal counsel. SBISD is grateful to Thompson & Horton for their legal representation and their integrity in ensuring SBISD’s interests are best represented.
7. Who is the SBISD’s current counsel in this lawsuit?
The Federal court approved Thompson & Horton’s withdrawal and request for substitution of counsel to Abernathy, Roeder, Boyd, & Hullett, P.C. The lead attorneys defending SBISD have successfully defended other Texas school districts in similar lawsuits.
8. Has SBISD’s legal counsel (current or former) recommended a change to the District’s election system?
9. What is the expected timing of this case?
The initial trial date for the case was set for a June 6, 2022 docket call. As is typical in litigation, this case was continued to October 2022. However, in September 2022, the presiding judge recused himself from the case. The case was reassigned to a subsequent judge who also recused himself. The case is currently assigned to Judge Sim Lake. The judicial reassignments have erased any standing court dates related to this case. As of October 2022, we are waiting for the judge to set new court dates.
10. How will this case be decided?
Federal Voting Rights Act lawsuits are heard in federal court and will be decided by a federal judge assigned to this case. There is no jury. Cases like this often rely heavily on voting patterns and demographic information as well as the legal merits of the case rather than testimony by individuals.
11. How is the data and demographic information gathered?
Each side in this lawsuit will have voting data and demographics experts to present information to the court. Information will largely come from the latest United States Census. SBISD has retained the leading expert in the state of Texas on voting data to represent us.
12. What filings have been made in the case, what do they mean and where do they stand?
a. Motion to Intervene. Ms. Jenny Morace filed a Motion to Intervene was filed in September 2021.
i. What it is: A Motion to Intervene is filed when someone who is not a party to the lawsuit wants to become a party to a lawsuit. In this case, the community member wanted to become a defendant alongside the District.
ii. What is the board’s position: As reflected in SBISD’s Response to Motion to Intervene, SBISD takes the position that the applicant intervener and SBISD seek the same relief and have the same ultimate objective: the defense of the District’s current at-large system. As a result, SBISD does not need any additional parties to this lawsuit as that may potentially delay the process and increase costs.
iii. Where does the motion stand: United States District Judge Kenneth Hoyt denied the motion because the applicant “has not shown that the defendants will fail to adequately represent her interests.”
b. Amicus-curie. Ms. Morace, who previously sought intervenor status, filed a motion to seek “amicus-curie” status.
i. What it is: A non-party “amicus-curie” grants the applicant “friend of the court” status and allows their attorney to file a response to motions.
ii. Where does it stand: On February 10, Judge Hoyt entered an order granting the request to the community member to participate as a non-party “amicus-curie.” Documents filed by the “amicus-curie” will be noted in subsequent sections. Amicus-curie status of the community member does not impact other individuals’ ability to continue with the normal legal practice of filing supplemental amicus briefs.
c. Preliminary Injunction On February 2, 2022, the Plaintiff’s attorney filed Plaintiff’s Application for Preliminary Injunction (“Injunction”).
i. What it is: The Injunction seeks to prohibit the at-large school board trustee election scheduled for May 2022 and force a single-member district plan in the 2022 election cycle.
ii. What is the board’s position: On February 15, SBISD filed this response to the Plaintiff’s Injunction seeking to prohibit the at-large school board trustee election scheduled for May 2022. In the response, the defendant’s attorneys made the strategic decision to not oppose a delay in the election, but to vigorously oppose the move to force a single member district system. This response is part of a complex legal strategy to vigorously defend the district in this matter. Trial attorneys routinely make legal strategy decisions as they are the holders of all the information available in the case (including privileged information).
d. What additional documents have been filed: The amicus-curie, represented by her attorney, has filed this document. It is worth noting that the district’s attorneys have noticed several misstatements of the law regarding the Gingles factors in the amicus-curie’s response. A Gingles factor is a term that refers to a federal case, Thornburg vs. Gingles, which establishes the current legal test for a discriminatory election system, often referred to simply as Gingles. The district believes it can defend this lawsuit with correct statements of the law, data, and facts, which have been and will continue to be represented in the district’s filings. The Plaintiff filed a reply to the defendant’s and amicus’ response on the request for injunction. You can read the Plaintiff’s reply here. In addition, state senator Paul Bettencourt and Will Hickman filed an Amicus Curiae Brief.
e. Where it Stands: The judge denied the Plaintiff’s request for an injunction to delay the May election because: 1. “The evidence is not sufficiently clear that postponing the current and imminent election for the purpose of changing the structure of SBISD’s electoral process may not bolster the minority group(s) ability to elect a preferred candidate” and 2. “Granting an injunction at this point may be more harmful to the voting rights of all citizens of SBISD. The election has already commenced.” It is important to note that SBISD’s legal strategy remains intact.
f. Does the Application for a Preliminary Injunction affect the bond election? No. The injunction seeks only to move the trustee election, not a bond election. Once called, by law the bond election must go forward as scheduled.
g. Emergency Petition for Writ of Mandamus and Motion to Stay.
i. What it is: A candidate for the SBISD Board of Trustees filed an Emergency Petition for Writ of Mandamus and Motion to Stay with the Supreme Court of Texas seeking to force SBISD to hold its Board election in May. It is important to note that SBISD is continuing preparations for a Board of Trustee election in May and will only cease preparations if ordered to do so by the court. Additionally, is also worth noting that the Federal Voting Rights Lawsuit was filed in federal, not state, court. The U.S. Constitution gives precedent to federal law (known as the Supremacy Clause) to federal court when hearing cases on federal law.
ii. What additional documents have been filed: Part of vigorously defending SBISD means the Board’s attorneys must respond to all pleadings filed. This means the Board responded to both the Respondent’s Response to (1) Relator’s Emergency Petition for Writ of Mandamus, and (2) Relator’s Emergency Motion for Expedited Relief and the Defendants’ Response to Amicus Morace’s Notice of Filing. The Plaintiff filed Response by Real Party in Interest Virginia Elizondo in Opposition to Relator’s Emergency Motion for Expedited Relief and Response to Real Party in Interest Virginia Elizondo in Opposition to Relator’s Petition for Writ of Mandamus. Additionally, Amicus Curiae Morace’s Notice of Filing was filed with the federal court.
iii. Where it stands: The Texas Supreme Court denied the motion to stay and the writ of mandamus. You can view the document here.
h. Defendants’ Objection to Duces Tecum Attached to Notice of Oral Deposition. On March 2, 2022, the district filed this notice.
i. What it is: The district is objecting to parts of the subpoena requesting documents from the district’s data expert.
ii. Where it stands: This document remains pending before the court.
i. Supplement to Expert Report of Robert M. Stein Ph.D.
i. What it is: The Plaintiff’s attorneys are seeking to add to their previously submitted expert report. In response, SBISD filed its Motion to Strike seeking to prohibit plaintiff’s expert’s supplemental report.
ii. Where it stands: The motions are pending before the court. The judge can decide whether to accept the supplement or not at any time between now and the trial.
j. Motion for Summary Judgment. On April 19, 2022, SBISD’s attorneys filed a Motion for Summary Judgment.
i. What it is: A Motion for Summary Judgment asks the judge to make a decision on the case immediately without a trial. It will seek to demonstrate that the plaintiff would lose on their claim.
ii. What is the board’s position: The Board asserts that the Plaintiff’s methodology in drawing Gingles 1 map is flawed and therefore does not meet the Gingles 1 standard. As a result, the case should be disposed.
iii. Where does the motion stand: The motion is pending before the court. The judge can decide whether to rule or not at any time between now and the trial.
13. What expert testimony has been submitted in this case?
Plaintiff submitted Dr. Stein’s Expert Report with supporting data and Dr. Tijerina’s Expert Report. The Board submitted Dr. Alford’s Expert Report.
Supporting data: Copy of SBISD demonstrative Data II(2600), Data SBISD Election, Election Results 2015_2021, Polarization Spreadsheet, Spring Branch Segregation ISD Data Analysis2
14. How soon can the community expect updates on this lawsuit?
Resolving legal matters takes time. SBISD will provide updates here as we move through the process. From time to time, the Board of Trustees may receive updates from attorneys on the progress of the case. As they do in all legal matters, the board will hear these updates in closed session.
15. What should the community do now?
It is imperative as we move forward that our community behave in a respectful manner. The district expects our students to exemplify our core values, and it asks its parents and community members do the same.
The Board of Trustees recommends following this webpage for reliable information to reduce the misinformation in the community.
16. How can the community voice concerns?
Community members are always able to e-mail the Board of Trustees with any concerns. Community members may also speak on topics that interest them at Regular Board Meetings. Long-standing board policy mandates that comments at Special Meetings and Workshop Meetings be focused solely on agenda items so the important business of the district can continue in a timely manner. Please note that the board will not be discussing this case outside of public meetings as befits the seriousness of this matter and in order to preserve strategy.
17. Is the Spring Branch Education Foundation (SBEF) a party to the lawsuit?
The Spring Branch Education Foundation (SBEF) is a 501 (c)(3) non profit committed to supporting students and educators in Spring Branch ISD. It is NOT a party in the lawsuit.
Over the past two decades, SBEF has provided seed money for the district’s technology program, the Altharetta Yeargin Art Museum and the SpringBoard Mentoring and Good Neighbor programs, among others. It funds district and campus grants, as well as scholarships for SBISD students. And it has created the Fund for the Future Endowment which funds programs for our students in perpetuity.
SBEF is nationally recognized for managing funds to enhance student learning. In 2016, Caruthers Institute ranked SBEF 42nd in the nation among 188 K-12 education foundations and in the top 10 of its division of foundations with $1 million to $1,999,999 in revenues. Caruthers Institute, which conducts the study, considers SBEF a wise investment.
The Foundation has awarded more than $13 million to SBISD since its inception. It has approximately 75 directors who serve three-year terms and provide money for the staffing of the foundation. You can learn more about SBEF here.
Last updated October 21, 2022