Tom Cofsky is the last the man standing — quite literally. After his board colleague Craig Iseli withdrew his candidacy last week, Cofsky became the only incumbent among the six people vying for one of the four open seats on the District 200 school board.
First elected to the board in 2013, Cofsky, 60, is running for his third term. Ironically, the now-veteran board member was among a 7-person board majority that, in 2015, did not feature a single incumbent with more than three years of board experience.
The lack of institutional memory was enough for former D200 board member Sharon Patchak-Layman to say something about it at her last board meeting.
“I don’t remember any board ever having [as few] years of service,” she said back in 2015, adding that the 1984 Oak Park village board may have been the closest rival.
Six years later, and Cofsky is looking at a similar situation through Patchak-Layman’s eyes. With Fred Arkin, who served a term on the board from 2015 to 2019, the only other person in the race with D200 board experience, it’s possible that the district seats a 4-person rookie majority.
“Experience matters,” Cofsky said on Monday. “What I’ve found is that it probably takes two to four years to figure out what goes on in that building and how it works. I really think there’s value in that.”
Cofsky often leverages that experience at the board table, often pointing out, for instance, when a novel concept presented by consultants seeking big dollar contracts isn’t all that novel, after all; or alerting his colleagues, as he’s done regularly, about the rate of administrative hires or, as recently as this year, about a looming teacher pension crisis.
“I tend to be a historian,” Cofsky said. “Not just with the school board, but with my work. I tend to be a long-term player. I don’t move around. Having a long-term view and being able to look to the past, as well as the future, matters.”
Cofsky, an engineer by trade, said he’s been at the same manufacturing and distribution company for 34 years.
That deference to experience is shared by most, if not all, of the D200 board incumbents, who are currently in the process of looking for outgoing D200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams’ successor. Both Pruitt-Adams and the majority of the board were adamant about making sure that the new superintendent is hired before the April elections.
There’s a lot at stake, Cofsky said. The next superintendent will be responsible for some major undertakings. Some of the most pressing include the administration of an unprecedented hybrid learning model amid an unprecedented pandemic and, on top of that, the likely implementation of a major freshman curriculum restructuring.
Cofsky said that if he’s re-elected, he’ll vote in favor of the proposed curriculum changes, which would put an end to separating incoming OPRF freshmen into college placement and honors level curriculum — a practice, commonly called tracking, that many district officials believe perpetuates longstanding racial inequities.
Cofsky said he considers the curriculum changes to have two major aspects.
“One is the standardization and that’s a huge, huge piece,” he said. “I know having had five kids go through the school that they may have gone through on a similar track, but the diversity of experiences they got was pretty broad, depending on who you got to teach you.”
The curriculum changes, he said, will help increase standardization and introduce rigor across the board, despite students’ individual experiences.
“The second is to ensure access for everyone and that’s the de-tracking piece,” Cofsky said. “There are certainly some students who will be in other programs, but the majority of students will have access to the same curriculum. We know there are barriers that exist. We know there are inequities that exist and so we’ve got to take action.”
The new superintendent, and the new board configuration, will also be responsible for shepherding a campus building overhaul to completion — a project of a magnitude that OPRF has probably not seen since the high school was originally constructed a century ago.
Cofsky was on the board when Pruitt-Adams recommended that the district fold the high school’s urgent need for new pools to replace the two aging ones that were built roughly 100 years ago into a much more comprehensive facilities master planning process.
By the spring, workers will have made significant progress toward completing a new South Cafeteria and two-story Student Resource Center, among other work. Cofsky was strongly against issuing more debt to pay for the new construction.
On Monday, Cofsky said he’s proud of the board’s fiscal record during his tenure. During his eight years on the board, the district became essentially debt-free, and has maintained an AAA bond rating and a roughly $100 million fund balance. In the past, Cofsky has lauded the board’s record of abating millions in taxes in order to give back to residents a portion of that fund balance, which started to swell in 2005, much to the chagrin of many district taxpayers.
More recently, during a meeting last month, Cofsky praised the fact that a financial audit and separate Comprehensive Annual Financial Report prepared by accounting firm Baker Tilly showed that, from 2011 to 2020, the D200 board increased the tax levy by about 1.4 percent a year, on average. That was a significant shift from the period between 2003 and 2010, when the board’s levy increase each year averaged about 6 percent, the report showed.
In November, Cofsky voted to avoid a 2.3 percent increase related to CPI in order to keep the tax levy flat compared with last year’s levy, a move that forced administrators to figure out how to make $1.7 million worth of budget cuts.
And Cofsky has also sounded the alarm about D200’s potential pension liability if the state shifts the cost burden to local school districts. According to the Baker Tilly report, that burden might total around $400 million, a point that he brought up unsolicited.
“I consider myself fiscally conservative and responsible,” Cofsky said Monday. “We are a wealthy, well-resourced district. The rest of the world would love what we have. It is abundant. Our challenge is that we need to use it wisely. We need to say, ‘Where do we hope to drive change and are we putting our money where our mouth is?’”