In recent years, the rural Esparto Unified School District has eliminated teaching jobs and classes as it struggled to absorb state funding cuts.
So district officials, eager to avoid a costly legal battle with San Francisco civil rights lawyers, chose to change the way school board members are elected.
"When we heard districts were being sued, we decided we had no other option," said Esparto trustee Jane Stallings.
This week, Esparto Board of Education members voted for a plan in which trustees must run for seats in the places they live rather than in districtwide at-large elections.
With three schools and 1,100 students in western Yolo County, Esparto is the latest in a series of districts across the state to change the way it elects trustees.
Like others that have made the switch, Esparto feared being sued by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. The law prohibits at-large elections if they dilute the voting influence of minority groups.
The Lawyers' Committee has used this argument to file claims against cities and school districts with at-large elections.
The city of Modesto, the Madera Unified School District and the Hanford Union School District made big payments to settle the group's claims that Latino voters there had been disenfranchised.
Other Central Valley school districts in Ceres, Gustine, Turlock and elsewhere changed their voting systems under threat of litigation. The Lawyers' Committee is suing the city of Tulare and San Mateo County.
In Sacramento, former Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, who has a private law practice and consulted with the Lawyers' Committee, sent the Twin Rivers Unified School District a letter demanding it switch to trustee area elections.
Esparto school officials decided they couldn't afford to wait to receive a demand letter. They moved to switch after experts advised them to set aside $1 million for potential litigation costs, said Superintendent Aida Buelna.
In comparison, the fee for a demographer to draw up trustee areas seemed relatively affordable, she said.
"We're trying like other districts around California to not be sued by San Francisco attorneys," Buelna said. "The only protection is to go by trustee area."
Buelna and Stallings both said they would like to see a Latino win election to the school board in the district, where the majority of students are Latino. Currently there are no Latino trustees. Drawing districts with many Latino voters might change that, they said.
But they said they didn't appreciate having to act under fear of litigation.
Jessica Pfisterer, a legal fellow with the California Voting Rights Institute at the Lawyers' Committee, said that's the way her group wants it.
"We prefer districts that say they will comply without a lawsuit," Pfisterer said. "If they don't change, I don't have a lot of sympathy. It's not a new law. We are just enforcing it."
The group's tactics seem to be working.
California Department of Education officials said Esparto is one of a growing number of school districts seeking waivers to switch from at-large elections to trustee-area voting.
Just this month, 25 districts asked the department for waivers. That's more than the state received from school districts in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 combined.
"A lot of them are coming in from threats of lawsuits," said Larry Shirey, who works in the department's district reorganization office.
Shirey said many of the districts seeking waivers have received letters from the Lawyers' Committee citing violations of the Voting Rights Act.
Experts differ on whether the shift is ultimately harmful or beneficial for schools and communities.
Douglas Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College, is an expert on school redistricting. As president of National Demographics Corporation, he advises school districts on the transition from at-large to area elections.
Johnson said the vast majority of districts in California still elect at-large representatives. The voting method is a product of turn-of-the-century reforms that sought to avoid the corruption of the ward system that once dominated Chicago and East Coast cities.
At-large voting "has been essentially the rule for cities and school districts for 100 years now," Johnson said.
The move to area voting has come about only in the past five or six years, since appellate courts rejected challenges to the Voting Rights Act, he said. It's been a useful tool in some areas to empower minority voters, he said.
In 2010, the Madera Unified School District was ordered to pay $162,500 in attorney fees to the Lawyers' Committee, which originally sought $1.8 million. The district agreed to abandon at-large voting and drew up trustee areas.
The result was an increase in the number of Latinos on the school board, he said. "There was one Latino on the school board and now there are four," Johnson said.
But change for its own sake may not be worth it, he said. In its battle with the Lawyers' Committee, the city of Modesto paid about $4.7 million in legal fees. But drawing districts didn't result in greater Latino representation on the City Council, Johnson said.
"It was a lot of money over a battle that did not get a new voice on the council," he said.
The Sacramento City Unified School District moved from at-large voting to trustee-area elections in 2006, with strong support from the local teachers union.
Rick Jennings, a former trustee, said he still doesn't agree with the move. "If a union wants to control (area) elections, it's easier to do you don't have to spend as much money," he said.
In addition, he argued, neighborhood elections make trustees beholden to a smaller group of voters not to the entire district. Decisions over school closures have been affected, he said.
"I believe it's very hard for you to look at the welfare of the entire district rather than just focusing on your area " he said.
Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, studies elections and redistricting.
He said the Voting Rights Act and the Lawyers' Committee's actions may not be popular among district officials. But like previous civil rights measures and the people who enforced them they are prompting needed change, he said.
"It's an outside force providing impetus," he said. "To some it may feel like bullying. To others it may feel like a fresh wind."