Anti-Latino Bias in Irving, TX, Schools

     DALLAS (CN) - The system of electing public school trustees in Irving, Texas, discriminates against a heavily Hispanic voting population, a federal judge ruled Friday.
     No Hispanic trustee candidate has ever been elected against a non-Hispanic opponent in the Irving Independent School District. Though more than 71 percent of students there are Hispanic, all seven of the district's trustees are white.
     In 2012 the suburban Dallas district switched from a system of purely at-large trustees to a 5-2 system: five single-member districts and two at-large seats.
     The trustees adopted the change in 2012 after publication of the latest census results indicated that Hispanics' share of the voting population eclipsed 50 percent.
     Manuel Benavidez and two other residents sued IISD in 2013 under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Benavidez had previously filed suit over the pure at-large system, but the court found that he failed to prove that Hispanics constituted a majority in a single-member district based on data from the 2000 Census.
     In siding with Benavidez and the other residents Friday, U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater agreed that Hispanic voters are "sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single member district."
     The creation of single-member District 6 for Hispanic voters does not overcome those factors, according to the 55-page opinion.
     Evidence from the plaintiffs supports the idea that Hispanic voters are "politically cohesive" and that "the white majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it - in the absence of special circumstances, such as the minority candidate running unopposed - usually to defeat the minority's preferred candidate," Fitzwater wrote.
     "The court finds that plaintiffs have proved racial bloc voting through statistical evidence from eight elections," the ruling continues. "The point estimates for seven of the eight elections establish overwhelming support by Hispanic voters for the Hispanic candidates. Although the point estimate for the 2013 election for the District 5 seat (58.0%) is lower than the rest, "a pattern of racial bloc voting that extends over a period of time is more probative of a claim that a district experiences legally significant polarization than are the results of a single election."
     Fitzwater shot down the district's defense that trustees voluntarily chose to convert from the pure at-large system, and that the U.S. Department of Justice precleared the plan.
     "The fact that a plan lacks a retrogressive effect (and is thus entitled to preclearance) does not necessarily imply that the resulting electoral system is permissible under §2 [of the act], which prohibits vote dilution," he wrote (parentheses in original).
     Fitzwater also credited the plaintiffs' evidence that Hispanics living in the district tend to have lower educational attainment, lower income and higher poverty rates.
     "These lingering effects can hinder the ability of Hispanics to participate effectively in the political process," Fitzwater wrote. "The court finds that this factor favors plaintiffs, although the court does not give it special or controlling emphasis."
     Benevides' attorneys with Bickel Brewer Storefront in Dallas showed during trial that as many as two districts could be drawn with majority Hispanic voters.
     "This verdict sends a powerful message to this school district and any others that would attempt to deny Latinos fair participation in the political process," partner William Brewer III said in a statement. "Our clients urge Irving ISD to take the immediate steps required to revise its voting scheme - and give Latino voters the opportunity for political participation they deserve."
     Fitzwater gave the district 60 days to come up with a new single-member election plan or 30 days to appeal.
     The district will confer with its legal counsel as to what it will do, spokeswoman Lesley Weaver said.
     "Irving ISD disagrees with the court's conclusion because district officials believe the current system (5 single-member districts and 2 at-large seats) affords all Irving ISD citizens the opportunity to elect the representative of their choice," she said in an email.
     Irving residents Juana De Leon and Daniela De Leon were also plaintiffs.