Ex-District 214 business chief paid $183,000 as part of mysterious departure

Northwest Suburban High School District 214's longtime finance chief got paid the rest of her full year's salary in a $174,789 lump sum when she resigned in September, according to a resignation agreement obtained by the Daily Herald this week.

Cathy Johnson, the associate superintendent for finance and operations since 2013, also got a check for $8,484 for 10⅔ unused vacation days.

She formally handed in her resignation Sept. 15, in a one-sentence letter to the superintendent and school board.

Johnson's annual contract - in which she was being paid a base salary of $203,473 - was to have run through June 2023.

District 214 officials disclosed the payment amounts Thursday, a day after they provided the partially-redacted 14-page resignation agreement in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Johnson's departure wasn't announced publicly at the Sept. 15 school board meeting when the pact was approved. Instead, the board's formal vote and acceptance of her resignation was disguised as a nondescript "personnel transaction."

Pat Mogge, the district's director of community engagement and outreach, confirmed Johnson's resignation was listed on Personnel Transaction Report Two that the board discussed in closed session, then unanimously voted to approve in open session.

In recent months, board members at their meetings haven't specifically announced the personnel items they're voting on after closed session, and their meeting minutes released sometimes a month later do not provide further description - a change from past practice.

It was only at a meeting more than two months after Johnson's resignation, on Nov. 17, that the public formally learned of the administrative turnover. On that date, the board came out of closed session and voted on a modified job description for a new associate superintendent for business services/chief school business official.

Earlier that same meeting, the annual tax levy presentation - normally given by Johnson - was presented by Mike Vargas, the district's director of business services.

Afterward, a district spokeswoman confirmed Johnson resigned Sept. 15, but was unaware of where she may be employed.

Johnson hasn't responded to a request for comment.

The agreement contains a confidentiality clause, in which Johnson and the board "agree to act in good faith to maintain full confidentiality to the extent possible," but acknowledge that as a public body, the school district may be limited by the Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act.

In exchange for the payout totaling $183,274 - along with 138.78 sick days of creditable service reported on Johnson's behalf to the Teachers' Retirement System - she agreed to a "complete and final settlement of any and all claims, actions, causes of action and demands" related to her employment, according to the agreement.

She also was provided a letter of reference from Superintendent David Schuler, in which he lauded her for oversight of the district's $300 million budget, restructuring debt and the health insurance program, and implementing a cost neutral transportation routing system.

"Cathy has a unique ability to contain costs and look for financial efficiencies, which I greatly appreciate, and she was an integral member of my district leadership team," Schuler wrote.

Johnson's departure is just one of the high-profile resignations at the state's second-largest high school district in recent months and years, including that of the superintendent himself.

Schuler, who has been at the helm of District 214 for 17 years, announced last month that he's leaving in mid-February to become executive director of AASA, the national School Superintendents Association - in a role he called his "second dream job."

But Johnson's resignation more closely resembles that of another top administrator in 2020. Kurt Laakso - then-associate superintendent for human resources, a one-time principal and a district employee for two decades - abruptly resigned for personal reasons at the onset of the pandemic. He is now assistant principal of curriculum and instruction at Oswego East High School.

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