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People: Behind the Scenes with David Tokofsky

Ruth Welte | June 13, 2013



tokofskyJowled and affable, David Tokofsky is the kind of guy who can’t get in the door of Camilo’s California Bistro before being recognized and greeted by other patrons and distributing handshakes to the waitstaff.

Officially, the 53 year-old Eagle Rock resident is a part-time consultant for the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles (AALA), the school administrators’ union.

His Twitter bio lists him as a “recovering skool bored member” – a jokey reference to Tokofsky’s 12-year Board stint, which ended several years ago.

But that barely touches the surface of Tokofsky’s connections.

Tokofsky is perhaps the quintessential behind-the-scenes player in Los Angeles education circles, operating as something between a professional gadfly and éminence grise.

He’s an LAUSD graduate, UTLA classroom veteran, and a consultant with clients including charter schools and traditional education agencies.

And behind the scenes, he talks with everyone – Board members, union leaders, community heads, and journalists – about topics as varied as budgets, politics,  policy, and personnel.

“It’s hard to find any issue he doesn’t have his fingerprint on,” says Edgar Zazueta, Director of Government Relations with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

But as influential and ubiquitous as he’s said to be, Tokofsky’s hard to pin down on the issues and reluctant to talk about his behind-the-scenes accomplishments.

He knows and works with everyone, and he generally leans towards pro-union positions,  but his influence and allegiances remain something of an enigma — and that may be just the way Tokofsky wants it.

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Tokofsky, 53, is a married father of two girls, ages 12 and 14. His family lives in Eagle Rock, and his daughters attend private school.

He grew up a public-school kid, raised by a single mom who was a substitute teacher, and early union member, in the LAUSD system (Pali High class of ‘77, according to his LinkedIn).

He graduated from Berkeley—with honors, he points out—and then taught History and English as a Second Language at John Marshall High School for 12 years.

 

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Then, in June of 1995, Tokofsky was elected to the Board of Education’s 5thdistrict and served for three terms, totaling twelve years.

He also worked for Green Dot Public Schools, a nonprofit charter operator, during part of that time.

In December 2006, Tokofsky announced that he was withdrawing his paperwork to run for another term.

Since then, he’s been consulting, kvetching, and – according to some – pulling levers behind the scenes.

In addition to the ALAA, his current consulting clients include Learning Works Charter in Pasadena. He also helps gkkworks, an architectural firm that designs, among other things, school buildings.

But all that doesn’t add up to a full-time living. Asked how he’s earning enough to put his daughters in private school, he points to his wife’s salary—she’s a manager in the UCLA system’s English as a Second Language Program.

Like his varied clients and past jobs, Tokofsky doesn’t appear to stick to one particular camp when it comes to education issues.

During a lengthy interview with LA School Report, he doesn’t push a staunch pro-union position, nor does he want to raze the current system in favor of charter schools.

He says he’s interested in teacher development: “The professional development piece is so lacking in terms of content. A large number of teachers don’t know their field very well,” he says.

He’d also like to see continuing education that focused on lesson content, rather than just on teaching techniques and processes.

Last but not least, he’s got an eye on fixing middle schools, starting by reducing their size. “I think putting 2,000 or 1,500 kids grades 6 to 8 in one place is a formula for disaster and no learning.”

Whether his varied ideas and clients make him a slippery character or a nuanced thinker is largely a matter of perspective.

“It’s a little hard to suss out his personal opinion versus the opinion of whoever he’s working for,” Sierra Jenkins, Communications Director for the California Charter Schools Association, told LA School Report.

Tokofsky is aware that this can be a problem, and will sometimes offer a menu of options to people he’s talking to so that they’re clear about what he’s telling them:

“I’ll say, ‘What would you like? — I’m David Tokofsky parent, I’m David Tokofsky former School Board member or I’m David Tokofsky, representative for the ALAA.’”

That may work for many, but not for Democratic political consultant Michael Trujillo.

Asked what vexes him most about Tokofsky, Trujillo replies: “Here’s the question [I have for him]: So you worked for Green Dot, you now work for AALA. They are virtually opposed on the major issues. How do you marry those two? Are you advocating for charter schools…or advocating for the administrators’ association that tends to toe the line and defend the status quo?”

Not willing to be pinned down so easily, Tokofsky responds to the accusation that he’s conflicted by picking apart the idea of a union-vs.-charter opposition. He points out that not only is he currently working with the Learning Works charter school as well as the union, but also that Green Dot schools are themselves unionized.

Then – just to give you a taste of how Tokofsky speaks — he draws a comparison between the romantic mission of charter schools and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s experiences on the experimental Utopian Brook Farm in the 1840s.

So you could say that it’s hard to get a simple answer out of the man—or you could say that it is hard to get a simplistic one. He is a case-by-case ideas man, rather than an ideologue.

Or, like many freelance consultants — political and otherwise — he’s a hired gun who’s paid to articulate the perspective of whomever hires him.

Some observers claim Tokofsky has helped shape Board member resolutions, talking points, and staffing decisions.

Indeed, Tokofsky makes two or three public comments at every Board meeting, and is constantly suggesting ideas and providing information to policymakers, advocates, and journalists.

However, he’s got no official power or authority within LAUSD, and most of those LA School Report contacted for this story were unable to document concrete examples of his attempts to influence policy or other matters.

One minor exception might be Tokofsky’s support for Board candidate Monica Ratliff during the District 6 runoff. On Facebook, Tokofsky urged his 1,700-plus friends to get UTLA to make Monica Ratliff its sole candidate – an effort that did not result in a formal change of endorsements but might still have had some influence over the volunteers who worked for her.

In reality, Tokofsky’s one-on-one relationships might be his main source of influence.

He’s known for having the ear of several Board members: Bennett Kayser is his closest connection—Kayser’s chief of staff, Sarah Bradshaw, is also Tokofsky’s former chief of staff.

But he also speaks frequently with Steve Zimmer, and, to a lesser degree, Marguerite LaMotte, Richard Vladovic and Tamar Galatzan — not to mention the newly elected Monica Ratliff, according not only to Tokofsky’s own accounting but also to outside observers.

That’s six out of seven Board members, for those of you following along at home.

He’s also no stranger to local reporters, as you can see from his long list of mentions in the LA WeeklyLA Times, and LA School Report.

What about the rumors that Tokofsky might go work for Ratliff, whose candidacy he supported and who will take office next month?

“I’ve heard the same [rumors],” Tokofsky laughs, but says that it’s not happening.  Or at least, that it hasn’t happened yet. “Nah, no. We’ve had no discussion.”

What Tokofsky says is that he’d like to work for a nonprofit. “But [one that] is not like a $300,000-a-year [budget] nonprofit, more like over $3 million a year, so that it’s steady and it does good things for kids,” he specifies.

The other possibility that appeals is a principalship—at a school where he could focus on teacher development and curriculum content.

He’d be especially interested in anything that gave him a crack at “finding a way to build a spectacular middle school,” he says with a sparkle in his eye.

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