SCHOOL FACTS
Cost per student Mercer $25,097,
Wis. $13,505, Nation $11,762
ACT comp. score Mercer 17.0,
Wis. 19.6, Lakeland UHS 20.0,
Hurley 18.7; perfect score 36.0
Mercer DPI Report Card score
lowest of all 421 Wis. districts






Wednesday, July 1, 2020


Good for a Laugh
TORKELSON’S RESIGNATION LETTER

The loud  cheering that was heard coming from many Mercer homes when the announcement was made at the June 22 School Board Zoom meeting that former Administrator Erik Torkelson had resigned was almost drowned out by the laughter when the contents of his resignation letter was read.

“I am PROUD of all we have accomplished,” read the laughable part of Torkelson’s letter.

Does this mean that he is proud of the Mercer School’s abysmal academic records?  Under his leadership the school was at or very near the bottom of the 421 Wisconsin school districts with its Department of Public Instruction’s School Report Card scores.   Mercer was the only school in the state for the 2018-19 school year with a report card score of 66.8, “meets no expectations”, and for the previous two years its scores “met few expectations”.  

Or is he proud the school’s ACT composite scores, which after he became administrator in 2011 were consistently well below the state’s averages of about 20 to 21?  Mercer’s composite ACT score was a miserable 16.6 for 2016-17 and 18.4 and 17 for the next two years.   

Could he be proud of the DPI investigation into teacher test cheating which resulted in two Mercer teachers surrendering their licenses?

And what about the DPI investigation into his misuse of $185,465 of Community Services Fund 80, which cost the district about $125,000, including legal fees, to settle?  That investigation was for just two years and did not involve the other years of Torkelson’s reign when huge amounts of Fund 80 money was spent on dodgy services. 

Could he be proud of the nationwide notoriety Mercer received when a teacher and school board member showed the sexually explicit movie Fifty Shades of Grey to young Mercer schoolgirls?  The print, broadcast and social media were saturated with telling how the decadent incident unfolded.

Perhaps Torkelson is proud of the Iron County Circuit Court verdict in which the judge ruled that he pay $5,340 in penalties, attorney fees and court costs for violating the law by not producing a public record, which was part of the faked hacking scheme. 

Instead of saying he was “proud” of what was accomplished, Torkelson should have apologized for failing the students, parents, staff and Mercer community.

Monday, June 22, 2020


A Long-Awaited Action
TORKELSON IS OUT!!!
The day many Mercer residents had hoped for arrived at 8:30 p.m. on Monday, June 22, 2020, when Mercer School Board President Bob Davis announced that Administrator Erik Torkelson had resigned.
 
Torkelson’s eight-year reign of mismanagement and misspending ended after a one hour and twenty-five-minute closed session of the board.  Details of the resignation were not announced except that Davis read a brief letter from Torkelson saying that he was resigning “for purposes of retirement”. 

The long-awaited Mercer School Board action came at a closed session “to discuss administrator leave status, and to potentially take action regarding same.”  The School Board had held numerous earlier closed sessions to discuss Torkelson’s leave status, but no action was taken.

Torkelson was placed on medical leave last June, and the board apparently had been wrestling with the problem ever since of how to terminate him. 

After Torkelson was placed on medical leave, it became clear to the school board, four of the five members of which were not controlled by him, that he had to go.  The composition of the board began to change with the April 7 election and with earlier elections and events. 

The board which Torkelson had controlled had been decimated one-by-one.

The final member of the Torkelson's minions, Deanna Pierpont, was soundly defeated in her bid to be voted back on the board in the April 7 election.  Another Torkelson crony, Micki Pierce-Holmstrom, saw the writing on the wall and chose not to seek reelection in the April 7 election.

Of the other members of Torkelson's babal, his mother-in-law, Kelly Kohegyi, and Denise Thompson, were voted off the board in earlier elections. The fifth member, Noel Brandt, resigned from the board when he moved out of town.

Friday, June 19, 2020



Torkelson’s Contract – Part 3

A “SWEETHEART”, DODGY DEAL

One major misunderstanding about the employment contract of deposed Mercer School District Administrator Erik Torkelson is that it gives him the job for life.  Well, not quite, although the term limits of his contract are contrary to state law. 

First, we need to know that Torkelson’s contract was a “sweetheart” deal signed on February 22, 2011, by his future mother-in-law and then school board President Kelly Kohegyi and her cronies Treasurer Deanna Pierpont, and Clerk Denise Thompson.  In subsequent years, Kohegyi, Pierpont, Thompson, Micki Holmstrom and Noel Brandt became Torkelson’s protectors and never once challenged his autocratic rule.  

Torkelson had no prior experience as an administrator but was given a lucrative salary of $98,000 plus overly generous benefits of about $30,000.

Torkelson’s absurd contract is for an “automatic and continuous term” and ending only after “two years from the date the school board votes to stop the contract from continuing on such automatic and continuous basis”. 

Can you imagine someone being fired from a position and then being allowed to stay on the job for another two years?

The Wisconsin legislature did not provide for automatic and continuous terms when it approved Statute 118.24.  That statute clearly states that an administrator’s contract “may not exceed two years” but allows “one or more extensions of one year each”.  Torkelson’s school board did not limit his contract to two years and never even considered one-year extensions.

Wisconsin Statute 118.24 also provides for a method for terminating a school district administrator.  The school board must give notice that it intends to not renew the contract at least five months before the expiration of a contract.  After the five months and a private or public hearing, if requested, the administrator would be out. 

So, which is it?  If and when the board finally votes to terminate him, does he have two years left on his contract or only five months?   The board can and should have that vote but the resulting confusing could tie things up in a lengthy and expensive dispute.

Three of Torkelson’s minions, Kohegyi, Pierpont and Holmstrom, signed a new contract on July 27, 2017, for a two-year term beginning retroactively to July 1, 2017.  But, again, the new contract did not limit his term to two years as required by law.  The contract provided for an increase in Torkelson’s annual salary from $98,000 to $113,500.  The trio approved the pay raise at a June 26, 2017, school board meeting.  Christa Reinert, a board member at the time and a strong advocate for honesty and transparency, which was then non-existent, voted against the pay raise. 

Nevertheless, Torkelson went on to draft a new contract which included the new salary but also made other changes.  This would have required that the new contract be presented to the full board for approval, which was not done and, therefore, is probably invalid. 

Torkelson’s trio voted to raise his pay to $113,500 from $98,000 even though he was being investigated for the misuse of Community Service Fund 80 money, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction was conducting an investigation into Mercer School teacher test cheating (two teachers subsequently surrendered their licenses), the school district ranked at or near the bottom of all 422 state school districts with the DPI School Report Card score, the school’s ACT composite scores had been consistently  well below state averages, and that he was already taking home salary and benefits much more than his contract allowed, in most years in excess of $150,000. 
  
After Torkelson went on medical leave in June 2019, the school district’s long-term disability insurance carrier began paying him 90% of his $98,000 annual salary, or $88,200 ($102,150 if it accepted $113,500 as his base pay).  Should the insurance company determine that he is no longer disabled and discontinues his payments, the school district could be on the hook for paying him a full salary, unless it finds a way to terminate him. 

Had Torkelson’s “board of stooges” acted responsibly and abided by their sworn oaths of office, the current school board would not be in the predicament it is in by trying to correct a very bad situation.



Thursday, June 11, 2020


Torkelson’s Contract -- Part 2

CONFUSING, CONFLICTING AND CONTRADICTORY

“A fifth grader could have done a better job,” was the way an experienced attorney described the employment contract of deposed Mercer School District Administrator Erik Torkelson.

“In a legal writing class, the contract would get a D- at best,” he went on to say.  “For starters, the contract assigns supervisory responsibility to the District Administrator who is, presumably, the subject of the Administrator’s Contract.  However, the contract says that Torkelson “will assume the duties of District Superintendent”, although the only reference to ”superintendent” in the state statutes on education is to the state superintendent.

Another glaring contradictory statement in the contract says: “Mr. Torkelson  shall perform such other duties, services or obligations as from time to time may be assigned by the District Administrator.”

So, what was Torkelson – the District Administrator, District Superintendent or both?  Does this mean that he is to assign duties to himself and the school board has no supervisory role?

An attempt was made to correct some of the faux pas contained in the July 2011 contract with a new contract in July 2017.  However, the validity of the 2017 contract is in question because it was never presented to or received the required approval of the full board.  (More on that in Part 3.)

Other major parts of the contract strongly suggest that it had no legal input and was an amateurish attempt to make it look like it had.  For instance, the contract also says the “the renewal or non-renewal of this agreement shall follow the procedures set forth in Section 118.243, Wis. Stats.”  But there is no Wisconsin Statute 118.243.

If Torkelson had meant it to read Section 118.24, which does exist, then the procedures for renewal or non-renewal as stated in paragraph two of his agreement directly contradicts what is in 118.24.  

A couple of other conditions of the contract required that Torkelson obtain a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction administrator’s license, which he did, and expressed a desire that he move into the school district, which he never did.  The provision that he be required to live in the school district was removed from the 2017 contract.

A ”Sweetheart” Deal.  Part 3 coming up.

Thursday, June 4, 2020


Torkelson’s Contract – Part 1

THE GENESIS OF A BIG MISTAKE

A recent exchange of comments in Mercer School Facts displayed that there is a good amount of confusion and lack of knowledge about the employment contract of Administrator Erik Torkelson.   

This interest has been prompted by the new Mercer School Board’s apparent attempt to terminate Torkelson, who has been on medical leave since last June.  Since then the board has delved into the school’s financial and academic records, apparently leading to the realization that Torkelson must not be allowed back in the school.  The board named as an interim administrator, Sheri Kopka, to help correct many of the wrongs created during Torkelson’s eight-year reign of mismanagement.  And they have been making progress.

But the troubling problem remains:  How do they terminate Torkelson?  Complicating the issue is that firing a person while on medical leave could expose the school district to a discrimination lawsuit because it might appear the person is being terminated due to a medical condition.

Of course, this is not the case with Torkelson, who should have been terminated years ago for mismanaging the education of the children and for unaccounted spending, including paying himself far more than the terms of his contract.

Torkelson was hired in 2011 by his then future mother-in-law and school board President Kelly Kohegyi, without any experience as an administrator.  He was given an overly generous annual salary of $98,000, plus about $30,000 in benefits.

Somehow, he managed to pay himself over $150,000 in most subsequent years without any explanation and without being questioned by a school board which he controlled.  Then, too, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction earlier ruled that Torkelson had misspent $185,465 of Fund 80 money in two years.  It did not investigate the other six years of Torkelson’s reign. 
  
The last of Torkelson’s minions. Micki Holmstrom, left the school board this last April, and one of his longtime supporters, former board President Deanna Pierpont, was rejected by Mercer voters in her bid to be elected back on the board, also this last April.  His mother-in-law, Kelly Kohegyi, and another minion, Denise Thompson, were voted off the board in earlier elections. 

So, what is in the contract?  Part 2 coming up.

SCHOOL DISTRICT OF MERCER 
ADMINISTRATOR' S CONTRACT 


IT IS HEREBY AGR.EED by and between the Board of Education of the School District of Mercer (Board or District) and Erik Torkelson, that the Board does hereby employ Erik Torkelson in the position as stated below. 

The School Board of the Mercer School District (hereinafter referred to as the Board) and Erik Torkelson agree to the following contract for the position of Superintendent. This contract is for an automatic and continuous term, beginning on July 1, 2011, and ending two (2) years from the date the school board votes to stop the contract from continuing on such automatic and continuous basis. For purposed of salary and benefits increases, each July 1st is designated as the anniversary date of the contract. 

Mr. Torkelson will assume the position of District Superintendent beginning July 1, 2011 provided Mr, Torkelson has obtained appropriate licensure and successfully carried out his job duties and responsibilities. This contract shall cover twelve (12) months/260 days per year under a schedule approved by the School District of Mercer. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2020