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.”
Across Harris County, it’s not unusual to see public offices with little to no representation of people of color, a longstanding problem that candidates like Lopez say leaves large pockets of the community feeling unseen and unheard — in this case, the school district’s entire north side.
Spring Branch ISD is in west Houston. The district spans about 57 square miles, housing 45 schools — plus additional charter partnership campuses such as those with Yes Prep — and serves about 33,200 students.
Most of these schools, at least 30 of them, are north of Interstate 10. And the majority of the district’s student population, 58 percent, identify as Hispanic, or Latino, according to the latest Texas Education Agency snapshot reports. About 57 percent are identified as economically disadvantaged — defined by the state as students who qualify for free or reduced-priced meals — and about 37 percent are English learners and bilingual students.
Yet Spring Branch’s school board has never been represented by a Latino candidate, or a candidate of color, from the north side of the district. And until recently, a person of color had never served on the board.
Elizondo’s lawsuit aims to have the district change to a single-member district system, which would call for the allocation of sections, or districts, within Spring Branch ISD with a similar number of residents. Each section would be represented by one trustee, who must reside in that area.
“SBISD’s at-large method of electing school board trustees is yet another practice and procedure that has had the result of impairing Latino and other minority’s electoral opportunities,” the lawsuit states.
“The at-large system of election is not mandated by state law. In fact, hundreds of Texas school systems elect their trustees from single-member districts,” it continues. “In totality, the at-large method of electing the Trustees of Spring Branch ISD dilutes the voting strength of Latinos and other racial or language minorities.”
Lucas Henry, an attorney representing SBISD, said the district does not believe there’s a need to change the elections system considering the academic standing of the district, which earned an overall B rating in the latest state accountability ratings.
“Spring Branch ISD has been a high performing school district for years,” Henry said. “In fact, people move to Spring Branch ISD for the schools.”
The difference between the communities north and south of I-10 are clear to anyone driving between the two. The north side’s main roads are lined with shopping centers, many of them displaying bilingual or multilingual storefront signs catering to the large Latino and Asian population.
The middle-class homes in these neighborhoods are smaller, closer together, with those for sale listed between $200,000 and $800,000 depending on the area. A stark difference from the wide array of multimillion-dollar homes sitting on sprawling and perfectly manicured lots in neighborhoods south of I-10 such as Piney Point Village or Hedwig Village, where all the current board members reside.
Current and former candidates, as well as community organizers from the north side, argue having representation from within the community could be a first step to bridging the gap between families and the district, an important aspect of building trust and community engagement.
“These children come with families, and you have to have family partnering with you,” Patricia Cabrera, longtime community organizer and volunteer, said. “And it’s quite true for all children, but especially for our (north side) families.”
Cabrera, whose family moved to Texas from Guatemala in the 1950s, grew up and attended SBISD as a child.
She recalls being one of a handful of Latino families living in the district and being one of the few students of color in her classroom. This started to change around the late 1980s, she said, when SBISD neighborhoods north of the highway started seeing an influx of Latino families.
Cabrera, 69, continues to back candidates like Lopez and Elizondo, hoping that each election could bring them closer to representation on the board. Her dream is that the attention to students on the north side will improve by having somebody on the board who has shared experiences with them.
“You have to provide role models for (students), people who have made it through,” Cabrera said.
In May, Lopez lost his second board election. He won 3,497 votes, about 33 percent of the votes for Position 1 on the board. In 2019, his first candidacy, Lopez also garnered about 32 percent of the vote, but with a much lower turnout rate, having drawn only 1,465 total voters in 2019, compared to 10,624 this year.
He wasn’t the first north-side resident to seek a seat on the board. Elizondo ran in 2015 and 2021, receiving about 17 and 40 percent of the vote, respectively. Noel Lezama ran in 2018, taking 41 percent of the vote.
The majority of voters in the school board election rejected every candidate of color up until 2022, when John Perez successfully ran for Position 6.
But for Lopez and others organizing in the north side, Perez’s victory did not seem like an avenue for adequate representation of communities of color. Like every other school board member in SBISD, Perez lives in the affluent south side of the district. His win was bittersweet, Lopez said, because he believes the new trustee fits in more with the status quo than with those who continue to wait for a candidate of choice – a candidate from within their north side community who earns voters’ support.
Perez faced two other candidates for Position 6 in 2022 and landed 66 percent of the vote. He was backed by a Political Action Committee called Spring Branch Families, which backs conservative candidates and advocates for conservative ideas.
Items on their watchlist range from literacy concerns, to transparency, content appropriateness in books and critical race theory.
“Critical race theory (CRT) is an ideology intended to divide the world into White oppressors and non-White victims,” a section of their website reads. “The theory attempts to fight racism with racism. It is essentially a racial take on communist ‘critical theory,’ attempting to indoctrinate communist ideals into our children by calling them racist if they disagree with the teachings.”
The PAC contributed about $30,900 in voter outreach and advertising expenditures for Perez’s campaign. Trustee Caroline Bennett, elected in 2022 alongside Perez, received about $30,300 from the PAC.
“They rally people to the polls,” Perez said. “So, I can’t deny the influence on the numbers of voters to the polls.”
Perez doesn’t think trustees need to reside in a specific community to provide adequate representation. It is not that the community rejects all candidates from the north, he said, but that perhaps the right candidate has not appeared.
One of his goals, Perez said, is to make sure that students who might lack advocacy can find that in him as a trustee.
“One thing you will hear me say over and over again is, ‘Please do not forget that I have to make a decision for every child,’” Perez said about his discussions on the board. “But most importantly, I have to look out for the most vulnerable.”
For Perez, the diversity that matters most on the board is diversity of thought, pointing mainly at a person’s career or field, rather than life experiences. If he were to see a board full of former teachers, or engineers, he would be concerned, he said.
“If we can have diversity of thought, we can have folks that are willing to put in the work who have the wherewithal to do the work, I think that’s a compelling candidate no matter where they come from,” Perez said. “There have to be people out there on the north side that meet that criteria. Right, but then you have to ask them: Are they willing to put their name on the line?”
The making of a candidate
Lopez, an openly gay man from Florida, moved to Houston in 2015 as a Teach for America corps member and started in the classroom, teaching English at Yes Prep Northbrook Middle School, the campus on the north side of Interstate10 housed under SBISD through a public-charter partnership.
Shortly after his arrival, Lopez opted to find a home in the north-side area to be closer to work and live among the families he interacted with daily. He eventually transitioned to Yes Prep Northbrook High School, following many of his former students and staying connected to the families. He also finished his two-year contract with Teach for America, but continues to work at the high school as a campus leader.
Working with families daily, and seeing their everyday experiences, is a key reason why he decided to start organizing to increase voter engagement and representation in the area. He said he feels well positioned to advocate for these families on the board.
“Teach for America was like instrumental in building a framework of knowledge from me on the realities of education in America,” Lopez said. “And then it was put in practice in my own teaching in this community, because it was just very clear in my experiences, and in conversations with my families and my students, the disparities between schools south of I-10 and north of I-10.”
Campaigning wasn’t always easy for Lopez, even in the north side of the district. Many people knew him, sure, but there was also a section of the population that was not fully engaged in politics. That’s where the door knocking came into play.
The last weekend in April, before early voting came to an end, Lopez and a campaign volunteer visited a neighborhood near Terrace Elementary School. After several unanswered knocks at the first house, someone cracked the door open.
“Go away,” the occupant said.
A few doors down, a man stepped out to have a conversation, but took offense to Lopez’ question about whether he had a voting plan. He lectured Lopez on why he did not need any reminders or check-ins.
As Lopez and the volunteer began leaving the neighborhood, a county constable pulled up and asked if Lopez was, in fact, knocking on doors. Somebody had reported a “soliciting” issue to police, the constable said, but once Lopez identified himself as a school board candidate doing routine – and legal – block walking, the constable laughed. He assured Lopez there wasn’t a problem.
Following two unsuccessful campaigns, Lopez remains hopeful, starting running such campaigns and engaging the community is the only way to build momentum.
Representation remains one of his main goals, he said, whether it’s him or another candidate of choice running for a seat. But he also feels added pressure as culture wars make their way into SBISD schools, taking away the oxygen for other issues that are affecting his students’ achievement daily.
Just this March, for example, the SBISD board moved to give itself full authority over its book banning process, excluding parents, teachers and librarians. And this spring, Lopez had to direct his staff to remove any LGBTQ and pride-related items – mostly rainbow flags – from classrooms as these were deemed by the board as being politically aligned symbols.
“These losses are important for candidates and volunteers to continue the work forward, although I am concerned that a lot of people in our community continue to see the losses and (see it) as just another reason why they would give up,” Lopez said.
The outcomes of these latest elections are also being closely monitored by experts weighing on the lawsuit against the district.
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.
Robert M. Stein, a political science professor at Rice University who provided an expert report for the plaintiff’s side, found the Latino and white vote directly conflicted in most Spring Branch elections since 2015.
Whoever was the candidate of choice for white voters, was the candidate least preferred by Latino voters, and vice versa.
“There is statistically significant evidence of racially-polarized voting in the Spring Branch Independent District’s Board of Trustees elections for the period 2015-2021,” Stein wrote in his report. “White Non-Hispanics vote sufficiently as a block to enable them, in the absence of special circumstances (e.g., single-member districts), to defeat the minority voters preferred candidates of choice.”
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Spring Branch hired its own expert, John Alford, another political science professor at Rice University, to offer his expert opinion on the methodology and data used by Stein. Alford disagreed with the methodology used by his colleague, concluding in his report that variations in voter behavior in Spring Branch weren’t necessarily tied to voter and candidate ethnicity. Alford wrote that the differences could reflect geographic divides within Spring Branch and nascent partisan divides that have come to be an increasingly common feature of local elections.
For Lopez and other community organizers, the path forward doesn’t necessarily involve the lawsuit’s outcome. He is sure that even if Elizondo wins her case this October, the district is likely to appeal.
Like Stein, he agrees that a change in the system will not be enough to bring the right form of representation to the north side. Organizing, he said, to engage the residents to have them choose their own candidate is the main goal. And that means more people need to show up at the polls.
“I don’t think it’s good for the single-member districts to happen and we have a turnout of 100 votes,” Lopez added. “My rallying cry since 2019 and before that has been ‘increased turnout,’ period.”