Former COD trustee: Breuder was offered $2 million buyout in 2009

The $762,000 buyout College of DuPage President Robert Breuder accepted on Thursday wasn't the first time he's been offered a significant early-retirement sum from COD, a former board member said.

Former Trustee Dave Carlin said that as early as 2009 then-board Chairwoman Kathy Wessel sought to buy Breuder out of his contract for as much as $2 million. That discussion came not long after Breuder took the reins at COD in January 2009, after spending a decade at Harper College in Palatine.

“(Kathy) said, ‘Bob's gotta go.' I said, “Excuse me? Are you serious?'” Carlin said in an interview with the Daily Herald.

Carlin said Wessel, a former high school teacher who received the endorsement of the college's full-time faculty union, told him Breuder was “hellbent” on causing a faculty strike in the middle of contract negotiations.

At Harper, Breuder had a strained relationship with faculty members, who went on a 12-day strike in 2002 and threatened to strike in 2006 after more than six months of unsuccessful contract talks.

In the ensuing months after the closed-door COD board meeting on ousting Breuder, Carlin said the board and Breuder brought in their own attorneys to discuss a potential buyout, resulting in $10,000 in legal fees for the college and a “couple thousand” for Breuder, who was reimbursed by the college.

“She had the ball moving,” Carlin said of Wessel. “She was ready to write the check.”

Wessel, who stepped down from the board in 2011, on Friday called Carlin's comments “inappropriate.”

“It would seem to me he is discussing things that may or may not have been talked about in closed session of the board,” Wessel said. “I believe ethically I have a responsibility to not divulge anything that was discussed in closed session and I don't intend to do that now or any other time.”

If the earlier buyout offer was spurred by unhappiness with Breuder's performance, the agreement approved in a 6-1 vote Thursday appears to have been triggered by his own desire to step down early and general happiness with his performance by the majority of the board.

The agreement calls for Breuder to be paid nearly three times his base salary when he retires March 31, 2016 — roughly three years before his existing contract was set to expire.

Wessel said the severance package approved by the current board was a “wise decision” that is “in the best interest of the college, the students and the rest of District 502.”

“I think the board made the best decision that they could,” Wessel said.

Asked to evaluate Breuder's job performance during his tenure, Wessel said: “Do I agree with everything he has done? Absolutely not. Are there some good things that have happened? Yes.”

Carlin, a former board chairman who lost a re-election bid in 2013, is one of 14 candidates running for the COD board of trustees in April. He said he wouldn't have voted for Breuder's buyout and would prefer that Breuder serve out the remainder of his contract, scheduled to end June 30, 2019.

“I think he's had a distinguished career and he doesn't want to deal with aggravation from people who don't appreciate his expertise and what he's done for the college during his tenure,” said Carlin, whom Breuder awarded the college's presidential leadership medal in 2013. “In the financial aspect, I can understand why he might say he's not going to just walk away — why he would expect severance — because he could've gone to other places. He came to COD.”

Breuder will receive a lump-sum payment of $762,867.77 upon his retirement. Though his most recent contract extension had him working through June 2019, he wrote in his letter to the board this week that “with age comes the inevitable reality that time is precious.”

“During the Christmas holidays, I took time to look ahead and define my future,” he wrote. “I concluded the time was at hand to make a life decision.”

Since last April, the board and Breuder have been meeting behind closed doors to negotiate the terms and conditions of his severance, according to the agreement.

In a conversation on April 25, Breuder informed board Chairwoman Erin Birt of his “increasing interest” to retire as of March 2016, according to the agreement and a letter Breuder sent to the board Tuesday.

In a Nov. 3 newsletter sent to college employees, Breuder said rumors of his retiring on Dec. 30 weren't true and asked anyone who had heard such rumors to contact COD media relations specialist Brian Kleemann.

“I have a contract that extends through June 30, 2019, which I expect to honor,” Breuder wrote at the time.

On Thursday night, Breuder declined to comment, referring reporters to his one-page letter to trustees. He didn't return calls or emails Friday.

The day after deciding to award Breuder with the severance package, board members remained tight-lipped about the nine months of negotiations that proceeded their vote. Board member Kathy Hamilton, a frequent Breuder critic, was the lone “no” vote on the seven-member board.

Trustee Kim Savage said fellow trustees gave Birt “parameters” to negotiate a severance deal with Breuder. She said final terms of the deal hadn't yet been discussed in November, when Breuder tried to quell rumors of his retirement in the newsletter.

“While he may have approached us initially in April, that doesn't mean that there were discussions about it every day or even every week or even every month,” Savage said.

Hamilton said she would prefer Breuder leave COD before his now-scheduled retirement date.

“Number one, it represents compensation to an individual that has demonstrated poor management, judgment and financial oversight,” Hamilton said. “The sum is absolutely inappropriate. ... It's more than inappropriate. It's extravagant and outlandish.”

Other trustees either didn't return calls for comment or referred to a one-page COD news release in which they praised Breuder for his service.

“I and others are of course saddened that Dr. Breuder will be leaving the college next year,” Birt said in the release. “His list of accomplishments is staggering. COD will benefit from his foresight and guidance for generations to come. We are pleased to have come to an agreement that best serves the college while recognizing the incredible leadership Dr. Breuder has shown.”

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