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SBISD's own law firm laid groundwork for election change in 2020

On January 13, 2020, in a detailed presentation to Spring Branch ISD leadership, SBISD’s own law firm Thompson & Horton LLP ‘laid the groundwork’ for a change to the district’s election procedures. The Thompson & Horton presentation focused on a change to Single-Member Districts to elect the Board of Trustees. Spring Branch ISD currently elects its Trustees At-Large.


Lisa McBride, a Partner with Thompson & Horton, delivered the 16 slide, 33 minute presentation, which featured the electoral district map for Austin ISD (a Single-Member District ISD) on its front and rear cover.


The presentation was described as “informative, and potentially leading to future conversations”. It was delivered in two parts.


The first portion of the presentation summarized the different electoral systems permitted in Texas. At-Large systems are by far the most popular electoral system, according to the presentation and Ms. McBride’s remarks. The At-Large system is currently used by SBISD and was described as:


At-Large: All qualified voters in the district vote in all races on the ballot.


The presentation describes the far less popular and more complicated Single-Member District system as:


Single-Member Districts: The school district is divided into geographic sub-units called single-member districts of roughly equal size, in a number equal to the number of trustee positions on the Board. Candidates run for election according to the single-member district in which they reside. Only voters who reside within a single-member district may vote for candidates running for that single member district.


Single member districts are used by Houston ISD and Dallas ISD, Ms. McBride remarked.


The second portion of the presentation is longer and discusses in excruciating detail the legal and operational procedures SBISD must undertake to convert to a Single-Member District system. There is not one mention of SBISD’s current At-Large system in the second portion of the presentation. Single-Member District systems (SMD's) are mentioned 13 times.


Ms. McBride introduces this section of the presentation by saying:


“I did want to begin laying the groundwork, because one of the more complicated electoral systems under both the education code and the election code are single member districts...I wanted to begin laying the groundwork of additional legal requirements regarding those systems, and it really does dovetail into the availability and timeline of demographic data. So you’ll see why that April 2021 date then becomes very important"


(Earlier, Ms. McBride had explained April 1, 2021 would be the release of the latest census data, which would be used as the foundation for achieving "electoral objectives".)


Later in her remarks, after describing the process by which SBISD could convert to a Single-Member District structure, Ms. McBride said:


“We are really looking at, in terms of making decisions, we want to have the best data available, and we really do want to have that data that’s available to us as of 2021.”


Ms. McBride seemed to be referring to Thompson & Horton as "we", based on the context of the remark.


In her closing, when discussing next steps, Ms. McBride said "...we can quickly put a plan in place if we need to in April of 2021...”


It is not readily apparent why this presentation was made to the Board of Trustees early last year. Save SBISD has not found any prior reference to election methodology or structure in the preceding minutes of the SBISD Board.


One possibility is this was simply a sales pitch for future legal services by Thompson & Horton LLP. Ms. McBride's biography states she has "Assisted several school districts with converting from at-large systems to single-member district systems", so this is clearly a specialty in her portfolio.


Save SBISD is requesting information from the district on the background related to this presentation.


Last week, Spring Branch ISD was sued by former school board candidate Virginia Elizondo. Ms. Elizondo’s lawsuit seeks to force the district to change its election method to the use of Single-Member Districts, the exact change to procedures Thompson & Horton laid the groundwork for 16 months ago.


Ms. McBride filed a procedural document in federal court on behalf of Spring Branch ISD and its seven trustees last week, but no attorney has been listed as counsel for the defendants as of the time of this writing.


It is not clear that Thompson & Horton LLP is the ideal choice for defense counsel given the deep interest in single member districts the firm displayed in 2020. This may be a contributing factor to the lack of listed defense counsel in court records.


Thompson & Horton donated between $11,000 and $54,998 to the Spring Branch Education Foundation from 2016 to 2018. Janet Horton is a current member of the SBEF Board of Trustees, and a Partner at the firm.


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The presentation and Lisa McBride's remarks in its second portion are linked below.


Thompson & Horton Presentation
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