By Terry Dean
Cheryl Witham, Oak Park and River Forest High School's chief financial officer, has accepted a similar position at New Trier Township School District 203.
The announcement came from OPRF on Feb. 20. Witham's last day as OPRF's assistant superintendent for finance and operations is June 30. She takes over at New Trier in the same role and with the same title on July 1.
OPRF will conduct a search for her replacement this spring and plans to have a new hire in place by July, according to a press statement released by the school last week. In that same statement, Witham said she's enjoyed her 11 years at OPRF.
"I've learned a great deal during that time, and I look forward to the new and different challenges at New Trier," she said.
She's taking over for New Trier's retiring associate superintendent, Donald Goers. Witham was hired as OPRF's chief financial officer in 2002. And after more than a decade in the job, she, more so than any other administrator during that time, is credited the most for greatly improving the school's finances.
Of late, Witham has been revered by many and reviled by some. Supporters note her stewardship of the school's finances.
The school was already campaigning for a tax hike referendum in 2002 before hiring Witham. The school was looking to maintain a fund balance of around $8 million. Currently, the school's reserves top $110 million.
That whopping amount, while praised by some, has sparked criticism from others, who accuse the school of stockpiling unnecessary cash.
OPRF passed its referendum in March of '02. Later that month, the school board hired Witham from the Minnetonka, Minn. school district, where she was comptroller for six years. She also worked previously at Arthur Anderson for 15 years as a senior auditor.
"My budgeting philosophy is 'kids come first,' — it's funneling resources to the classroom," Witham said at the time of her hiring.
That philosophy impressed officials at New Trier, who hired her on Feb. 19.
"She was everyone's first choice," said Linda Yonke, New Trier's superintendent, who added that it was a unanimous choice among the seven-member board.
"We were impressed with her experience and her style. She has a real clear focus that what she's doing has impact on the classroom. That was very important," Yonke said.
Witham's deal is for three years. Her compensation has not yet been released publicly but will once everything's "signed and official," Yonke said. Witham currently makes close to $202,000 annually at OPRF, according to salary data from the school.
Yonke said she and her board are excited to have Witham, who was chosen among eight finalists following a national search. New Trier's finances, meanwhile, are "very solid," though some challenges are on the horizon, Yonke noted.
The northwest suburban district has facility needs and faces uncertainty from the state — as are other school districts — concerning pension reform, Yonke said. Witham, she adds, will help address those and other issues.
Over the last two-plus years, OPRF has faced administrative reshuffling. Witham began overseeing buildings operations and saw her title changed from CFO to assistant superintendent. She'll have the same title and duties at New Trier.
In 2010, Witham was a finalist for the business manager post at Palatine School District 15. Stalled contract talks with OPRF at the time led to Witham pursing other options. She broke off talks with Palatine, however, when OPRF offered her a new five-year contract. Witham's currently in the third year of that deal.