Tokofsky won't seek reelection

Times Staff Writers

David Tokofsky, a celebrated teacher who became an iconoclastic school board member and, more recently, one of the most vocal critics of the mayor's efforts to win authority over local schools, announced Saturday that he would not seek reelection to the Board of Education.

The pullout of Tokofsky, who filed papers last month indicating he would run again, will trigger a one-week reopening of the filing period for candidates in District 5, the mayor's office said. The district stretches from Eagle Rock to the cities of southeast Los Angeles County. A new challenger would have little time to organize a campaign.

Only one other candidate, Yolie Flores Aguilar, who narrowly lost to Tokofsky in 1999, remains in the race.

Tokofsky said he submitted his notice of withdrawal Saturday at City Hall, where the election office was open because of a filing requirement in an unrelated race. He squeezed in the errand around a birthday party for his 6-year-old daughter.

Tokofsky said one factor in his decision was his inability to spend as much time as he would like with his children; he also has an 8-year-old daughter.

"I put a jumper in the backyard for the birthday party. While I wasn't in the jumper, I felt like I was jumping today," Tokofsky said. "A lot of pressure came off my shoulders in making this decision."

Tokofsky, 46, added that he is weary of juggling outside work to get by on the $24,000-a-year salary paid to Los Angeles Unified School District board members -- unchanged over the 12 years and three terms of his service. But he also said the battle with the mayor has taken a toll.

Villaraigosa quietly targeted the three incumbents on the March ballot, all of whom opposed a law, backed by the mayor, that transfers some of the school board's authority to him. The board, with Tokofsky leading the rhetorical charge, has sued to overturn the law on constitutional grounds. The case goes before a judge next week.

The mayor's office seemed pleased with the news about Tokofsky.

"David Tokofsky understands that there is a growing chorus for change, and incumbent school board members can no longer defend the status quo," said Janelle Erickson, a spokeswoman for the mayor.

A source in Villaraigosa's office went even further on condition of anonymity: "This is a huge victory for the mayor. Tokofsky was one of the leading opponents of the mayor's education reform efforts."

Tokofsky was by no means certain to lose the race -- even if opposed by the popular Villaraigosa and even though he is white in a district whose Latino majority is growing, said Paul Goodwin, who has conducted polling for Tokofsky since the board member's first race in 1995.

"David was very strong going into this race," Goodwin said. "This is not a case of him being driven out because he had no chance of winning. We were pleasantly surprised. These are by far the strongest numbers he had going into any election."

Tokofsky has a history of close finishes. He first won election by fewer than 100 votes. In his next contest, the margin was several hundred. He won his last race handily despite opposition from former Mayor Richard Riordan.

"David has built up a cadre of voters who like him," Goodwin said.

Other than Villaraigosa, the key player in this year's board races is the teachers union. Tokofsky has always won the backing of United Teachers Los Angeles -- an endorsement that has sometimes been ratified by the membership against the wishes of top union leaders.

The current union leadership, which has strong ties to Villaraigosa, has been cool to Tokofsky but has also conceded that he might well have won the union endorsement and the resources that come with it. The union can pour hundreds of thousands of dollars and an army of volunteers into a board race.

Tokofsky's impending departure means he will be immune from union pressure to deliver a higher salary offer in ongoing contract talks with teachers.

On Saturday, union President A.J. Duffy praised Tokofsky's accomplishments in the classroom as a teacher. Tokofsky coached a Marshall High School team to the U.S. Academic Decathlon championship in 1987.

"I am reminded that David was a really fine teacher," Duffy said. "He's got a wealth of knowledge. What a great high school civics teacher he would make with his added wealth of experience from the school board."

School board President Marlene Canter praised her departing colleague. "When he looks at an issue, it's through the lens of his keen intellect," she said. "He raises the level of discourse on the board."

Tokofsky has also always had critics, who have accused him of being overly calculating and having an intellect that sometimes wanders too much from the main business at hand. Early in his tenure, he at times was combative with district administrators.

As a board member, Tokofsky played a key role in hiring an inspector general, whose job is to ferret out fraud and waste. He also pushed successfully for the committee that oversees spending on the massive school construction and repair program. Such committees are now part of all school bond measures.

He said Saturday that he is also proud of his advocacy for full-day kindergarten, for the district's comprehensive use of student assessment and for helping break up an insular culture that typically looked for leadership only from inside the school system.

For the last 2 1/2 years, Tokofsky has worked part time for Green Dot charter schools. But he said he hasn't decided what to do next -- other than that education will be involved. The self-professed political animal said he will miss the fray and playing a role in education issues at the state and federal level.

"I love challenges and competition," he said. "But just fighting over power and control is incredibly distracting and demoralizing from the core mission of helping children. I could win the playground fight, but we tell our kids at school that if you fight at school, you're both suspended."

howard.blume@latimes.com joel.rubin@latimes.com

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