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John Serrano Jr., 69; his lawsuit changed the way state's schools are funded

December 06, 2006|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

The advice from the East Los Angeles elementary school principal shocked John Serrano Jr. To meet the needs of his promising son, Serrano was told, he should move from within the Los Angeles Unified School District to a wealthier community. Because schools received most of their funding from property taxes in the late 1960s, higher taxes meant stronger schools, the principal said.

So Serrano moved his family, first to Whittier and then Hacienda Heights, but not without looking back. A social worker, he promised to strive to make things better for those he left behind.

When lawyers for the Western Center on Law and Poverty overheard Serrano at a dinner party talk about underfunded education in East Los Angeles, they saw potential legal action.

In 1968, Serrano lent his name to the class-action lawsuit that challenged California's century-old method of school financing. By 1976, the state Supreme Court had reaffirmed an earlier ruling that declared the existing system unconstitutional. The decision resulted in a shift away from reliance on local property taxes and toward state aid for education. The father of three had won.

Serrano died Sunday of complications relating to surgery for colon cancer at Queen of the Valley Hospital in West Covina, his family said. He was 69.

"We do have a much more egalitarian system now than before John Serrano first brought his lawsuit. It led to a nationwide movement.... Many states have followed California's lead," Stephen Sugarman, a lawyer who argued the case before the state Supreme Court in 1976, told The Times.

"We call them public schools, but it's really private advantage they exploit, and that's what Serrano meant to curtail," said Sugarman, a professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.

In challenging the disparity in funding, Serrano's lawyers said $1,232 was then spent to educate each student in Beverly Hills compared with $577 in Baldwin Park, according to a 1983 Times story. Those who lived in Baldwin Park were also taxed at a rate twice as high as Beverly Hills residents, but the amount raised was substantially less.

It was wrong, Serrano's attorney's argued, for such disparities to exist in a state whose Constitution guarantees equal opportunity in education. The state's high court agreed, saying funding differences between districts should be "considerably less" than $100 per pupil.

One major outcome was state legislation that gave money to districts that didn't receive as much funding through property taxes. By 1977, then-Gov. Jerry Brown had signed a $4.26-billion finance bill that attempted to equalize school funding.

The case continues to shape decisions about school financing today, experts said.

"Whenever there are school funding bills, it means the money has to be spent equally in school districts," Howard Miller, a lawyer who was Los Angeles Unified's chief operating officer from 1999 to 2000, told The Times on Tuesday.

For example, a suit brought about six years ago contended that Los Angeles Unified was at a huge disadvantage in receiving construction money from the state. Because funds were allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, the huge district, which could be slow to react, was at a disadvantage, Miller said.

"A lawsuit was brought that rested on the same constitutional principles as the Serrano case," he added. "It argued schoolchildren in Los Angeles were not able to get their proper share of construction funds.... The court decisions in that case meant Los Angeles Unified received billions of dollars more than it otherwise would have."

Serrano always played down his role in the historic case.

"It's difficult to accept credit," he told the National Journal in 1979. "If I hadn't been the plaintiff, somebody else would have brought suit."

The case "kind of became a part of my father," said John A. Serrano, the second-grader with promise who is now a vice president at Deutsche Bank Corporate Trust. "When he was maturing in the 1960s, my father was a change agent. He was part of a time when people were challenging the status quo. He always embodied that."

A native of East Los Angeles, Serrano was born April 14, 1937, one of two children of John, a shoemaker, and his wife, Grace, a seamstress.

Serrano married Aurora, his high school sweetheart, and earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Cal State L.A. in 1968. Three years later, he received a master's in social work from USC.

For 40 years, Serrano was a licensed clinical social worker. He was a community organizer with Los Angeles County's mental health department and served as chief of social services for the East Los Angeles Regional Center in Alhambra, a state-funded corporation that serves the mentally retarded.

He also worked with Los Angeles County Child Protective Services.

As the Serrano case wound its way through the legal system, he worked on building his career and raising his family.

"I didn't have the slightest idea the thing would be so big," he told The Times in 1977.

When the court ruled in Serrano's favor, he said he woke up to its implications, at his wife's urging.

"She told me that ... 'there are a lot of people who see you as a figurehead. You better take it seriously,' " he said in the 1977 article.

He did, Serrano said, by giving speeches on the subject every time he was asked.

In addition to his wife and son John, Serrano is survived by another son, David; a daughter, Amber Pomeroy; and five grandchildren.

A rosary will be said at 7 p.m. Monday, and a memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. John Vianney Catholic Church, 1345 Turnbull Canyon Road, Hacienda Heights.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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