Tom Cofsky

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Below are candidate-submitted answers to a biographical survey Wednesday Journal sent out to all candidates running in this year's elections.

Age: 52

Profession: Business Manager (Vice President of Manufacturing at Oil-Dri Corporation of America, currently overseeing operations employing >500 people in 4 states)

Years in Oak Park or River Forest: 23 as homeowner, 2 years prior as a renter

Are you an OPRF graduate? I graduated from Norwood High School (Norwood, MA) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY) with BS in Chemical Engineering in 1982.

Do you have children who have, are or will be attending OPRF? What are their ages?

5 children in total, all have or will attend OPRFHS. Daughter 21 graduated OPRFHS in 2009 and expecting to graduate U of Michigan in 2013 from School of Education, son 20 graduated OPRFHS in 2010 currently Junior at U of Michigan, son 18 graduating from OPRFHS in 2013, son 16 a Sophomore at OPRFHS and daughter 13 going to OPRFHS in fall of 2013.

Why are you running for this office?

I want to assure that OPRFHS will remain a high quality educational institution for generations to come. While the District is currently in a sound financial position, there are numerous challenges ahead that will compete for our resources. The School Board must understand and make transparent where our precious taxpayer resources are being invested, and assure that they are being invested so that the long term goals of the district are achieved. I believe that the quality of the school can be improved over the long term without significant cost increases, but it will take time, leadership, a full commitment to excellence by all working at the school and a willingness to make the changes that will move us toward our goals.

For the past 13 years I have managed a large manufacturing organization which has undergone significant changes in its processes while also modifying its culture in an effort to cut costs while improving quality to our customers. This has been achieved by: formulating a long-term strategic plan with goals and key performance metrics, identifying where changes were necessary and then getting the entire organization trained, committed and accountable to the execution of our plan. I believe my business experience and insight is directly applicable to the challenges facing District 200 and I look forward to applying my experience to meet these challenges.

I joined the Superintendent's financial Advisory Leadership Team two years ago to learn about the financial workings of the district and offer my business experience in providing advice regarding long-term financial models for the district, with specific recommendations for annual cost reduction targets. I believe that I can make a greater impact by bringing my perspective directly to the Board as a member. Given my business experience, I fully understand how critical it is to act in the best interests of our customers (students), shareholders (citizens), and employees (teachers) to ensure long-term success.

Have you ever run for or served in a local political office before? If so, when and which office? No.

Are there individuals or groups which actively encouraged your interest in running for the D200 board?

I chose to run on my own with the support of my direct family members. As such, I am an independent candidate and do not bring any "single agenda" issue to the table. Since making that decision I have reached out to close friends, neighbors and community members seeking their support. I plan to do a lot of listening as a candidate and, if elected, as a member of the Board.

What do you consider to be the greatest strengths of Oak Park and River Forest High School?

I consider the diversity of the student body (reflective of our nation as a whole), the variety in its curriculum as well as extracurricular activities and the strong community support to be OPRFHS's greatest assets. The school also has some excellent teachers who truly engage and inspire the students. The school is currently in a very positive financial position.

What are your strongest concerns about the school at this time?

While the District is currently in a strong financial position, the current model, which has included annual spending increases greater than the cost of living until this past year when teachers took a salary freeze, is unsustainable and will ultimately require changes in how we deliver education. Such changes must be planned in line with the strategic goals of the District. If nothing is done, then we will be faced with the need to go to the taxpayers with a referendum, or make drastic cuts that will impact the quality of education. Additionally, the district is expecting a 20% increase in student population over the next decade, with no increase in the tax base, and could bear some of the burden of the state's pension mess.

The achievement gap is a real challenge, not only for OPRFHS but across our country. Our school is really two schools within a school, with two populations having different cultural norms and different performance. Performance must improve across all students, and this will require understanding while taking into account these different cultural norms. We cannot solve this alone, and should reach out to those who have demonstrated success.
Finally, as both an engineer and employer of high school educated manufacturing workers, I believe that strong scientific and technical training is vital for our future. I am an advocate of advanced technical skills training for students of all levels of achievement.

How many District 200 school board meetings have you attended in the past two years?

I have attended multiple Board meetings and have been a member of the Advisory Leadership Team the past two years, attending ~7 meetings each year. My participation on the Advisory Leadership Team has provided me with a powerful window into the financial challenges facing District 200. I believe I can provide greater value to the community by bringing insights directly to bear as a member of the Board of Education.

What is your opinion of the Strategic Planning Process currently underway?

I believe that Strategic Planning is a fundamental part of a successful organization, as there is a need for clarity in vision as well as long term goals. While the intent of the process at OPRFHS is good, I am concerned that the input is not fully reflective of the community and student population, despite repeated attempts to reach out to all parts of the student body and community. Additionally, what happens with the plan, once developed, is as critical as the actual plan. It is important that the Board be able to have input into, adopt and then follow the long term plan.

Should District 200 become an active funder and partner in the Collaboration for Early Childhood initiatives to boost the success of at-risk children in Oak Park?

I fully support enhanced literacy and reading for young children, as there is exhaustive data which supports that such initiatives have long term learning benefits. With that said, there are issues which must be addressed prior to District 200 directly funding such a venture. We must focus on strategic goals (hence a strategic plan) aimed at the most significant problems or opportunities that we want to address and then determine what specific solutions we should invest in, using data to guide us. I believe that CEC will likely emerge as a strategic priority in the long term best interests of District 200 that merits financial and resource support. Since we are responsible for finite resources, I believe that the administration and Board will need to make tough choices in other aspects of educational programming and redirect resources accordingly. This is likely to be the "less fun" side of governance.

In a community with high property taxes, it is both responsible and necessary to address both sides of the coin. We can make bold investments, but must also bear responsibility for even greater spending discipline. (In the case of CEC, we would need to assess what resources are currently being aimed at the problem that early childhood literacy is expected to address, and determine whether to supplement current programs with CEC or to replace existing programs with CEC support). Additionally, there are concerns regarding a HS partnering with other entities (Village, other school districts) in funding a non-for-profit entity that would need to be resolved to assure such a move would protect the district's investment if changes occur.

Is the current financial reserve held by the school district a reasonable amount or too much?

The current reserve provides our district with the ability to support a vital community asset for the long term. This reserve has put the district in a position to be able to reduce long-term debt, ultimately reducing costs. It also has allowed the District to make steady improvements over the long term without having to make either drastic tax increases or drastic operational cuts. As a prospective member of the Board of Education, I am committed to a process of continuous improvement in managing school expenditures and have relevant management experience. Managing costs must be an urgent priority; the District's financial reserves must not foster complacency. As a long distance runner and in my business experience, I am a fan of the Tortoise, believing in long-term goals and working hard every day to improve and reach those goals, as opposed to the Hare, who got distracted by short-term issues. A healthy reserve, in concert with a solid plan and total commitment of all stakeholders, fits the Tortoise approach!

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