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 District 200 school board elections.

Age: 56 

Previous political experience: Elected to D200 Board of Education for 2013-2017 term.

Previous community experience:

homeowner and taxpayer since 1990. Coach of youth sports, active with Holiday Food and Gift Basket program for > 10 years.

Occupation:

Business Manager – title of VP of Manufacturing for 17 years. 

Education:

BS in Chemical Engineering in 1982 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. I consider my 26 years as a parent, 35 years in industry as well as 4 years on the School Board to be ones of continued, on-the-job education and learning.

How would you define the role/functions of a D200 school board member?

A school board member is one of 7 who collectively, not individually, are responsible to:

1)    Clarify the purpose/ direction of the District. Direction is provided by outcome goals and supported through policy that the district must follow. Goals are educational as well as financial. Once the purpose and goals have been provided, the Board monitors progress via measures and policy compliance.

2)    Act a conduit to the community that they represent.

3)    Employ a superintendent who is delegated to run the district. 

As an individual member, some of the functions to support overall board roles, include:

1)    Listen carefully to the needs of our students and taxpayers.

2)    Passionately represent student interests while being fully accountable to out taxpayer's resources.

3)    Collaborate with fellow board members to drive strategic action.

4)    Do one's homework to study and understand strategic issues. Ask challenging questions, leveraging individual experiences and expertise.

5)    Participate in outreach committees of various types. 

As a board member, you may be asked to make decisions relating to Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts. What is your understanding of TIF districts? What are your thoughts about their impact on school districts?

I understand TIF districts to be a key part of economic development in certain areas. EAV is capped for the duration of the TIF, and tax revenue that would come from increased EAV is used to stimulate development. Specific to Oak Park and River Forest, where there is minimal commercial real estate, such economic development is important to provide overall tax base growth without putting 100% of the burden on existing homeowners.

If executed effectively, TIFs have a short term negative impact on school districts by forfeiture of immediate property tax increases within the TIF, but have long term benefits as TIFs expire and new EAV comes into the fold. The overall impact to schools is dependent upon the type of property being developed, as housing stock expansion can increase the tax base but also the student population and burden on the schools, whereas commercial property does not increase student population but provides incremental tax dollars.

 There have certainly been some challenges between different governmental bodies on existing TIFs in Oak Park. Most recently, the decision to further amend a TIF came before us due to unforeseen environmental costs associated with the project. While amending the TIF meant a short term forfeiture of D200 revenue, I supported such action because I believe it was in the best long term interests of our taxpayers to absorb those costs within the school district rather than immediately increase taxes for our citizens and risk lowering the financial position of our Village.

Do you think that OPRF has an equity problem? How do you define equity? Do you believe that the district is currently utilizing its resources effectively enough to address the long-standing issue of equity?

Yes, I believe there is an equity problem, but it is by no means unique to OPRF. Unfortunately, many of the students arriving at OPRF are already at a significant disadvantage when they walk through the door as freshmen.

I would define equity as "fairness". There are ample situations where there is a lack of "fairness". And while it is naïve to expect that life be 100% fair 100% of the time, it is our responsibility to work to address inequity, especially when it impacts our children.

The results of both academic as well as disciplinary performance across racial and socioeconomic lines are not satisfactory, and we must work diligently to remove or reduce the barriers that lead to inequity and contribute to such outcomes. For example, I see huge differences in the level of advocacy across our student population – be it parental or self-advocacy. These differences can lead to different levels of relationship within the school community, which then impact the classes students take.

I cannot say we are using our resources effectively enough if I am not satisfied with our current position. I do believe the district is generous in its resources, and as such do not see our challenge being a lack of resources, but rather some ineffectiveness in deployment of those resources. Tremendous resources are used for Special Education, supporting a large percentage of minority and low income students. The launch of 1 to 1 Chrome Books is aimed at providing ALL students with technology access. Additionally, we significantly expanded our counselor resources to provide a variety of supports to all students. Just recently we entered into a relationship with EOS (Equal Opportunity Students) that has resulted in roughly150 students being identified who have the grit to take AP classes but have never been challenged to do so. The counselors play a key role in making this happen. There are a variety of programs that have been implemented over the years aimed at helping our neediest students. We need to review them all, sorting out which work and which do not, and STOP those that are not effective so the resources can be deployed where they are more effective. 

Were you for or against the recent swimming pool referendum that failed? Explain your position.

I voted in support of the facilities plan put on the ballet for referendum. After participating on committees that reviewed many, many proposals, I believe this was our best plan forward at the time. I was opposed to the plan to renovate the existing pools as: 1) we would be getting a lot less for our money, 2) it is very difficult and disruptive to do major internal renovation while school is in session (I have plenty of manufacturing experience to support this), 3) and cost surprises are more likely on internal renovations.

While the community was split on this vote, I believe that many of those voting against were actually supportive of the plan, but were not in favor of the financing recommendation. They believe the entire cost should have come from OPRF's fund balance. I was in favor of the recommendation to fund $20M out of fund balance and using bonds for the remainder for the following reasons: 1) The long term recommendation of the FAC, adopted by our board, called for $20M to be earmarked for facilities. This amount was then tied to how much immediate tax relief was provided ($>30M in total). While at that time the final price tag of the facilities was not known, changing this amount would significantly impact the long term plan to right size the fund balance and would greatly accelerate the need for an operating referendum. As such, making a sizable capital investment, without the support of the community, and then coming forth with an operating referendum, does not sit well with me. 2) A long term facilities investment benefits our taxpayers for decades to come, and those benefitting should be the ones paying for that investment (or at least a part of it).

Another reason many opposed the referendum was because of the belief that the district was putting a disproportionate amount of its resources towards facilities/ pools, versus towards educational programs and addressing our achievement gap. What they might not understand is that while the referendum certainly had a big price tag, the cost of the facilities referendum equates to $1.6 million a year, which is roughly 6% of the $28 million spent annually on teacher salaries alone. Said another way, this district spends 17 times as much on classroom teachers as it would for this facilities project.

Based on the failure of the referendum to pass, I realize we must adjust. I would like to see a majority of our community in support of a solution, not 50% +1. As such we need to reach out and get input from those opposed to the plan, and present a plan that addresses our facility needs and is financially tolerable to our taxpayers. I believe all the work done to this point will be beneficial in getting us to a viable solution.

What is your impression of the new community outreach committee that will be attempting to build community consensus around a financially feasible long-term facilities plan that addresses numerous issues at the high school, including equity, 21st century learning environments and a plan for replacing OPRF's old swimming pools, among other issues? 

The concept, as it initially was communicated, is a bit broad. While outlined as covering pools, learning and other issues, it is critical to me that there be clear boundaries/ guidance before having committee members all start dreaming in color without any regard to cost. It is also important that the facilitator constantly use those guidelines in framing the discussion. I have seen firsthand where that was not done effectively. I have raised those concerns to our superintendent.

My support of moving ahead with this approach, then, is a vote in support of our new superintendent executing practices that she has been effective with in prior experience. We do need outreach and we do need to have people with differing viewpoints contributing to the dialogue. I have seen our superintendent in facilitation/ outreach and it is a breath of fresh air! I am willing to support her and give her the opportunity to make an impact on a challenging topic.

Are you aware of OPRF's most recent disciplinary data (for the first semester of 2016-17) and what are your thoughts about its accuracy?

I participated in the discussion on the disciplinary data brought forth on Jan 17, 2017. I do not feel the data presented is not accurate. Data is merely data. What concerned me and others is the interpretation or story that came with the data. Specifically, there were substantive changes in practice related to discipline which resulted in different consequences being issued. This was partially related to Senate Bill 100, although I believe our district was well ahead of that bill. I believe that increased counselor support and other factors are making an improvement and there is more activity in support of our students. I also believe that adjusting our practices to reduce the amount of missed class time is the right direction to go. But claiming a drop of in-school suspensions from 269 to 49 and out-of-school suspensions from 69 to 5 in 1 semester, without providing perspective on the actual changes in student behavior (process inputs), does not adequately tell the story. Were the dramatic drops a result of changes in how we now issue consequences or a true change in school climate?

Are there other issues or initiatives that you are particularly interested in having the board pursue during the next four years and how are you planning to advocate for them?

I have advocated for the establishment of a compensation philosophy and discipline for our administration and plan to continue to carry this forward. There was some resistance in the past, but our new superintendent has shown support to advance this. For an institution with as much of its costs tied to human capital as OPRFHS, there is a surprising lack of compensation discipline/ infrastructure. While the administration must lead the establishment of better HR processes, the board must demand that critical policy/ philosophy are in place.

I participated in faculty contract negotiations in 2014. A new contract will be negotiated in 2018. I believe it is important that there be continuity within the board, from a collective bargaining perspective.

 

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