By Terry Dean
June 30 was Cheryl Witham's last day as assistant superintendent for finance and operations at Oak Park and River Forest High School. She will now assume the same role at New Trier Township High School. Before leaving OPRF, Wednesday Journal interviewed Witham about her tenure at the high school.
What is your greatest accomplishment or contribution to OPRF?
The financial stability of the district. I started just after the last referendum, in 2002, and at that time the community sent a strong message that it was very concerned about the district's financial condition, financial reporting, and internal controls. The board clearly heard the message and was looking for a financial professional when it hired me. I was charged with improving the financial condition of the district and improving the high school's reputation for its finances.
During my time here, we've raised the bond rating to AAA, a designation held by only 67 school districts in the country. We've been recognized nationally with awards for our excellence in budget reporting and financial reporting, and our audits receive no negative comments. I am very proud of this work. The school district is in a nice, stable financial condition and is perfectly positioned to address student achievement, equity, increased enrollment and long-term facilities issues.
I believe that the most precious resource this community has is its youth. A high-quality education ensures long-term stability in this community. Athletics and activities ensure that youth are purposefully occupied learning life experiences. Due to the way Illinois funds school districts, those programs cannot be maintained without committing reserves for rainy days, facility needs, and other contingencies. We have only one chance to educate each student, and each new generation deserves the same opportunity for a high-quality education.
When faced with criticism from the public, particularly about OPRF's fund balance, you never seemed to be affected by it, at least publicly. Where does that cool exterior come from?
I want to do a good job, so I'm listening and wanting to understand the concerns being expressed, so we can make changes where they make sense. That's that calm. I'm trying to listen and process; I'm thinking, coming up with creative ways to solve problems. Plus, at the end of day, I have hobbies and interests, and I get to go home to a great family. [She has five children and 10 grandchildren, who almost all live nearby, as do her parents and sisters.]
Is there anything more you wish you'd accomplished at the high school?
I've been reflecting on my time at OPRF and do not have any regrets; I've had a wonderful experience here. I do wish the community understood school finance and our current financial condition a little bit better. I think we did well communicating inside the building at least; almost any staff member could tell you about our finances. Illinois school funding issues are complicated, and the community would benefit with a better understanding of that reality.
Some, including our editorial page, consider you among the most influential and powerful people at the high school. Is that an accurate view?
It's been a huge collaborative effort. I've been lucky to be part of a great leadership team, and the business services and operational staffs are all excellent.
What conversations have you had with the incoming finance and operations chief, and what advice would you give him in working at OPRF?
Tod [Altenburg] has been spending time here with me and the superintendent, so we can share the details of our five-year financial plan, our long-term facilities plan, the history of our levies, the new Financial Advisory Committee, and so forth.
As for advice, I would say it's really important to understand the culture of the community and the building, and to appreciate diversity and equity — it's not just our number one goal but what we live and breathe.
And enjoy being in the building with the kids.