TORKELSON COMP. $165,963
Contract $98,000; Benefits $30,000
3rd highest paid of state's 424 admin.
Wis. DPI Supt comp. $121,307
Cost per student Mercer $24,910,
Wis. $12,942, Nation $10,667
Mercer DPI Report Card score
lowest of all 422 Wis. schools




Wednesday, September 18, 2019


Another DPI Investigation
 
THE MERCER TESTING SCANDAL  

A Mercer teacher has surrendered her teaching license in what may have been affected by an investigation into test administration and scoring by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

 

Information posted Monday on the DPI’s Educator Licensing website shows that Mercer history teacher Deborah Hohner surrendered her teaching license on September 11.  She resigned from her position at the school on September 6.  This followed a September 4 closed session of the Mercer School Board which had on its agenda several items apparently related to the investigation.  (See MSF 9/9/!9 The Tip of the Iceberg)

 

The public posting of Hohner surrendering her license does not include information linking her directly to the investigation.  However, an earlier listing on the DPI website showed that her “license status” was “under investigation”.

 

The DPI had confirmed on several earlier occasions that it was investigating the Mercer School for “test administration and scoring.”  This latest development does not indicate if the DPI has concluded its investigation or the names of persons who may be involved. 

 

Investigating irregularities at the Mercer School has kept the DPI busy.  It had earlier found that $185,465 of Community Services Fund 80 money had been misused.  That claim was settled with the school paying the DPI $124,515, plus costing about $37,000 in attorney fees.

 

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

Educator Licensing Online


Entity Number: 67974

Last Background Check Submitted:

 

License Type:
T001 - Teacher
Stage:
Lifetime License
License Number:
1590061947
Original License Date:
09/22/2017
Most Recent Application/Payment Received:
Valid From:
09/22/2017
Expires On:
License Status:
Voluntary Surrender as of 09/11/2019
Renewal Guidelines:
Valid w/ Employment & Background Check
Pending Renewal/Extension:
No

THE MERCER SCHOOL FACTS MISSION
Its purpose is to report news and information – facts – about Mercer School Board and Administration issues and overall school academic performance.  It is intended to keep Mercer citizens aware of the management and inner workings of the school.  It is not a school newspaper; therefore, it will not report school sports events or individual student or teacher activities/accomplishments.  MSF pledges that all news reports will be thoroughly researched and supported by school, state and Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction documentation.

Monday, September 9, 2019


The DPI Testing Investigation
THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG?
Sweeping foreboding information under the rug is nothing new at the Mercer School.  But what will the new Mercer School Board do about what appears to be the latest scandal to surface?

The word is that a Mercer teacher was fired (some say that person was given the opportunity to resign) as a result of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s investigation into test administration and scoring at the school. The investigation has been ongoing for over a year and the issue apparently came to a head last week when the DPI gave the school the chance to act or face public disclosure of its investigation findings.

The agenda for a closed session at a special School Board meeting last Wednesday contained items which appeared related to the DPI investigation.  (See MSF 9/5/19 Special School Board Meeting)

The former administrator and his School Board never allowed any public disclosure of the DPI investigation. There is no way of knowing how deep the investigation went or if last Friday’s firing (or resignation) is just the tip of the iceberg.

The DPI’s “Educator Licensing Online” information shows the license status for the teacher involved in Friday’s incident as “under investigation”.

Any breach of test administration and scoring rules is viewed by educators everywhere as a very serious matter.   Not only does such cheating give a false sense of achievement to students aided by being given answers to test questions, but it also does a disservice to those students who follow the rules.

The Mercer School Board’s new president, Bob Davis, has said that he is committed to total transparency.  But will Mercer citizens get to hear a full report about the outcome of the DPI investigation and what steps he and Board have taken, and will take, to prevent this from ever happening again at the Mercer School?  

Thursday, September 5, 2019


A “Special” School Board Meeting
THE ON-AGAIN-OFF-AGAIN DRAMA
The Mercer School’s students and staff and the Mercer community appear to have received another reprieve – at least for now.  At a special School Board meeting Wednesday night it was agreed to extend the leave of absence of District Administrator Erik Torkelson.

This means that the almost all new School Board, which is independent of the absent administrator, and the interim administrator will continue to have the opportunity to institute much-needed reforms in the management of the school.  (See MSF “Torkelson Returns” 8/29/19)

Torkelson has been on medical leave since he had a stroke in mid-June.  Just nine days before Wednesday night’s special meeting, the Board approved a request from Torkelson to return to full-time employment on August 30.  He did not return to the school and now this puzzling request to extend his leave of absence.

The Board decision to continue Torkelson’s leave came after a two-hour long closed session. 

But also on the closed meeting agenda were two other mysterious items on which the Board took no action.  It is possible that those two issues could be related to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s investigation into the Mercer School’s ACT test administration and scoring.

The DPI has confirmed that it was conducting the investigation and reportedly has interviewed several present and former teachers and even students.  According to DPI licensing information one teacher is “under investigation”.

However, the agenda item stated that the Board was to consider “specific personnel problems or the investigation of charges against specific persons”. (Note the plural “persons”.} The agenda also stated that the Board wanted “to discuss matters of student assessment.  (ACT test results?)

The other agenda item stated that the Board wanted “to confer with legal counsel…concerning strategy to be adopted by the body with respect to litigation in which it is or is likely to become involved.”   ACT, Inc., owners of the widely used testing system which is used by the Mercer School, has been known to seek legal action against school districts which violated its testing rules.   

And if that happens, guess who could be on the hook. MERCER TAXPAYERS!
 

Thursday, August 29, 2019


What Now?
TORKELSON RETURNS

Just when we were beginning to hope for some improvemnt in the management of school affairs, a pall has been cast over the prospects for change.  Administrator Erik Torkelson submitted a request, which was granted by the Mercer School Board, to return to work on August 30.  He has been out on sick leave since mid-June, reportedly as the result of a stroke.

Meanwhile, a School Board consisting of four of five new members appeared to be doing what a Board should do versus past Boards.  And that is fulfill their responsibility to actively manage school affairs.

New Board President Bob Davis seemed in control and interim Administrator Sheri Kopka was performing in a much more open manner. This contrasts with the puppet School Board which was completely controlled by the administrator.

Bob Davis led the way with open discussions of some issues never before allowed.  He gave a full report on the Community Services Fund 80 settlement with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.  Discussion of the DPI investigation into the misuse of Fund 80 or the settlement which cost Mercer taxpayers $124,515, plus about $37,000 in unreimbursed legal fees, was not allowed under Torkelson.  Davis even developed comprehensive School Board meeting agendas – a first. 

Kopka proposed and was implementing a Citizens’ Advisory Committee, something that would not have been allowed under the earlier regime.  Now, with Torkelson returning, it remains to be seen if this idea will die a sudden death.

The pressing question is:  Will the new School Board exert its required responsibility and maintain control over school matters, or will it allow itself to revert to where the Board was controlled by the administrator? 

Tuesday, August 20, 2019


A Misquote?
A NEW BOARD MEMBER’S FIRST FAU PAS

Maybe it was a misquote, but if it wasn’t you have to wonder if newly appointed Mercer School Board member Jeff Nehring really knew what was “going on” when he was quoted in the Daily Globe as saying:

“I think a group of people in the town…thought there was a lot more going on than there was.  When you are on a board you know what is going on more than someone who is not and doesn’t have a clue.”

Is Nehring referring to the “group of people in town” as not knowing what was “going on” and not having “a clue” those who have raised significant questions about the operation of the school?  These concerns include, but are not limited to:

§  Extremely poor academic results which placed Mercer in very last place of the state’s 422 school districts rated by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction with its annual School Report Card scores.  It has also been well below the state and national averages with its ACT composite scores.

§  A DPI investigation into the Mercer’s School’s test administration and scoring scandal?  Two teachers could face revocation of their teaching licenses.

§  The Mercer School District was forced to pay $124,515, plus about $37,000 in unreimbursed legal costs, to settle a claim by the DPI for improperly using Fund 80 Community Services funds.  The DPI had originally claimed that $185,465 had been misused. The School Board must now develop a proper Fund 80 budget for 2019-20.

§  An unresolved issue concerning the pay of Administrator Erik Torkelson.  His contract was for $98,000, plus benefits of about $30,000 for a maximum total of about $128,000 a year.  But somehow, he managed to pay himself well in excess of that amount every year since his mother-in-law Kelly Kohegyi hired him, including $168,641 in 2016-17 and $165,962 in 2017-18.

So, are these some of the issues that Nehring said “a group of people in town thought there was a lot more going on than there was”?

Or what about Nehring’s statement to the Globe that “when you are on the board you know what is going on more than someone who is not?”  Well, Christa Reinert and Karl Anderson were on the School Board and should have known “what was going on” but most of the time did not because they were consistently denied information and records which they should have been routinely entitled to as School Board members?  They were also intimidated and threatened in their attempts to learn what was really “going on”.

In any event, Nehring’s statement in the Globe is puzzling.  We certainly hope that when he begins his School Board term at the August meeting he will focus on what was really “going on” and direct his efforts (and language) to repairing a system which tolerated poor academic results and mismanagement and misspending.
 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019


A NEW DILEMMA FOR THE MERCER SCHOOL?

What happens to an organization when its work force is down more than 10%?  Is it less productive, less efficient?

This could be the situation the Mercer School will face at the start of the school year.

We already know that it is minus a science teacher as a result of Sheri Kopka being named temporary Administrator.  Mercer School has advertised the position, but there is this question:  Why would anyone take the job knowing that Kopka must return to her classroom teaching position if Administrator Erik Torkelson recovers from his stroke?  Her new $90,000 contract says she will revert back to teaching if Torkelson recovers within her one-year contract’s term.

But the big question is what will the School Board do about the two teachers who are under investigation in the Mercer’s School’s test administration and scoring scandal?  The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has confirmed the investigation, and its website lists under one of the teacher’s names “License Status: Under Investigation.”

It is likely that the DPI could conduct license revocations hearings in the near future.

Surely the Mercer School Board would temporarily withhold renewal of the two teachers’ contracts until the matter is fully resolved.  Of course, the School Board can appoint substitute teachers.  But that is not the same as having regular teachers in place, particularly at the start of a new school year.

If this isn’t enough of a problem for the new School Board (four of the five members are new), it must confront the problem of coming up with a realistic budget before October’s public budget hearing and annual meeting.  In the past, the School Board had very little to do with developing the budget and, in most years, rarely saw it until the very last moment.

Now the Board’s challenge is to eliminate some of the frills and waste and focus on providing the resources for a quality education for all students.  This might require eliminating the perks received by the handful of community residents who became part of a patronage system.

Now the BIG, BIG question:  Is the new School Board up to the task?

Sunday, August 4, 2019


The Mercer School Board 
A NEW BEGINNING? WELL MAYBE

For the first time in eight years the Mercer School may have a Board of Education and Administrator which will focus on quality education and the efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

Two new Board members, selected at the July 30 meeting, will join two recently elected members, Bob Davis and Jim Hannemann.  This is in contrast with a Board which not too long ago lacked the ability to manage school affairs in an open and honest manner.

Recently retired Mercer dentist Dr. Jeff Nehring and retired Racine schoolteacher Sue Loth were selected from a list of five to fill two vacant board seats.  The vacancies were created by the resignations of Karl Anderson and Noel Brandt.   

Now only one holdover from the knavish School Board is still on the Board.  But voters will have a chance to remove Micki Pierce Holmsrom in the Spring 2020 election.  They had earlier ousted clique members Kelly Kohegyi and Denise Thompson.  The cabal was further decimated when Deanna Pierson chose not to seek reelection in the last election, and Noel Brandt resigned and moved out of town.

At least two attempts were made earlier to break up the clique with the election of Karl Anderson and Christa Reinert, who were committed to honest and open management of school affairs.  They were repeatedly harassed, insulted and even threatened.   A smear campaign was successful in edging Christa out of her Board seat in this last Spring’s election.  Karl resigned for some unknown reason. 

Probably the best qualified candidate for appointment to a vacant Board position was not selected at the July meeting.  He is Rich Pegg, a retired attorney who has a long history of working with youth groups and has been active in Mercer community organizations.   As an attorney, he would have been able to provide valuable legal insight into school issues and possibly avoid any future wasting of taxpayer money on outside counsel like was done in the last school year -- $77,108, $37,212 of which was reimbursed by the school’s insurer.

Another opportunity for rebuilding a sadly lacking academic program may involve the selection of Sheri Kopka as interim Administrator.  She was the school’s science teacher when chosen to replace Administrator Erik Torkelson who had a stroke in June.  At its July meeting the Board approved a $90,000 one-year contract for Kopka.

To gain greater community involvement Kopka said at the July meeting that she would appoint a citizens’ advisory committee.  She said that the committee would work on creating a new school vision and a strategic plan for continuous improvement “which will guide our work here at the school”.

Let’s hope that Kopka chooses wisely and avoids putting any of the old clique Board members or their followers on the committee.

Sunday, July 28, 2019


July School Board Meeting 

FILLING TWO BOARD SEATS, NEW ADMINISTRATOR’S CONTRACT ON AGENDA

After limping along with two of its five members missing from the Mercer School Board, the Board appears ready to fill the two vacancies.  In so doing it will have the chance to break the mold which has seen a Board that neglected its responsibilities to provide a good education for the children and manage school affairs in an honest and open environment.

The agenda for the 5 p.m. Tuesday, April 30, School Board meeting includes these Action Items:

            Board appointee candidate session

                        -- Introductions, open mic for/by candidates

                        -- Questions by board members

                        -- Closing comments

            Board selection of appointees to fill open board positions

Also, on Tuesday’s agenda, in closed session, the Board will consider a temporary Administrator’s contract for Sheri Kopka.  Kopka, the school’s science teacher, was selected at the June meeting to fill in for Administrator Erik Torkelson who was granted a medical leave while recovering from a stroke.

Contracts will also be discussed for Tricia Thompson, business manager; Adam Kussard, building and grounds director; and the teaching staff. 

While all of the School Board candidates’ names have not been announced, it is reported that five persons have applied for the two positions.  It was announced at an earlier Board meeting that Rich Pegg, a retired attorney, and Sue Loth, a retired schoolteacher, have applied for the positions. Also, Jeff Nehring, a Mercer dentist and a former School Board member, has reportedly applied. 

Since its April meeting, the three-member Board has wrestled with how to fill the positions since no policy existed.  In the interim, the Board approved an amended policy.

The two vacancies were created with the resignations of Noel Brandt and Karl Anderson.  The three-member board now consists of Bob Davis as president, newly elected Jim Hannemann, and Micki Pierce-Holmstrom, a hangover from the old puppet Board.

That puppet Board consisted of Administrator Torkelson’s mother-in-law Kelly Kohegyi, and Torkelson supporters Denise Thompson, Deanna Pierpont and Noel Brandt.  Kohegyi and Thompson were voted off the Board in School Board elections, and Pierpont chose not to seek reelection in last election. 
 

Thursday, July 25, 2019


OPEN LETTER TO MS. KOPKA

Occasionally a comment is submitted to Mercer School Facts which stands out as being too important to be buried within the other comments.  Following is one such comment which carries an important message.

Dear Sheri,

Thank you for accepting the appointment of District Administrator. You have the unique opportunity to lead Mercer School to a more productive future. We all realize that the past Administrator’s dictatorial style of leadership was not effective. The removal of the teachers' union guaranteed that schoolteachers and staff were forced to comply with Mr. T’s wishes or face possible termination. The school finances are nearly depleted, due to extravagant and illegal spending. You need to literally wipe the slate clean and start by being honest with the school board and taxpayers. All records need to be accessible to the school board and DPI so we may rebuild a broken system. A vote should be taken among teachers and staff to see if they want representation by the teachers’ union. Please do not feel pressured by Mr. T., the school board has entrusted the future of Mercer School to you! If you feel you cannot operate with the many pressures said Job would produce, please resign now so we may find someone with integrity and honesty! We are sick of the same old song and dance!

 
 


 




 

Thursday, July 18, 2019


School Board’s Selection
SHERI KOPKA PICKED AS TEMPORARY ADMINISTRATOR

Sheri Kopka, science teacher at the Mercer School, was selected Tuesday to fill in as administrator for the hospitalized Erik Torkelson. 

Although no official announcement has been made, it is generally known that Torkelson had a stroke resulting in partial paralysis.  The three-member Board accepted a request for a medical leave for Torkelson for an undetermined period.

It then agreed to enter into a contract with Kopka to fill the district administrator vacancy on an interim and probationary basis for a six-month term or subject to the return of Torkelson. 

The Board agreed to appoint Kopka to the temporary position in an hour-long closed session. It was not disclosed if anyone else had shown an interest or if the Board had sought applicants.

Kopka received a provisional license as an administrator from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction on July 1, 2017.  She was licensed as a teacher on July 1, 2009, and has been Mercer’s 7-12 grades science teacher.  Her new position as administrator raises the question of who will teach science?

Kopka inherits a list of school problems.  Possibly most problematic is that the DPI has been investigating the Mercer School for “test administration and scoring.” The DPI confirmed on June 14 that “the matter is currently under investigation”.  It began the investigation over a year ago and has since interviewed former and current Mercer teachers and students.

In its June 14 announcement the DPI also said: “During the investigation DPI ‘shall keep confidential all information pertaining to the investigation except the fact that an investigation is being conducted and the date of the (license) revocation hearing’  (Wis. Stat 115.31 (6)(b)”.

Another problem Kopka faces is trying to improve the poor academic results which placed Mercer in very last place of the state’s 422 school districts rated by the DPI with its annual School Report Card scores.  It has also been well below the state and national averages with its ACT composite scores.

Preparing a 2018-19 School District budget will be another one of Kopka’s challenges. 
 


 

 

Sunday, July 14, 2019


Special Meeting

SCHOOL BOARD TO TEMPORARILY FILL ADMINISTRATOR SPOT

A special meeting of the Mercer School Board has been called for 3 p.m. Tuesday, July 16, to discuss the “District Administrator Status/capacity”. 

The Board apparently will try to temporarily fill the administrator position due to the illness of Administrator Erik Torkelson.  Although no official notice of Torkelson’s illness has been made public it is generally known that he had stroke resulting in some paralysis.

The Board will discuss filling the vacancy in a closed session.  It will then return to an open session to give a summary of what was discussed in the closed session and vote upon any action required.  It will also hold an open discussion on the “District Administrator position potential ‘Pro-Tempore’ path forward”.

The School Board presently consists of only three members:  Bob Davis, Jim Hannemann and Micki Pierce-Holmstrom.  It is expected to fill the two vacant Board seats at a 5 p.m. meeting on Tuesday, July 30.

Thursday, July 4, 2019


What Now? 
FILLING TWO VACANT BOARD SEATS 
The Mercer School Board has approved a policy change which should allow it to fill two vacant Board seats.  Since its April meeting the Board has been limping along with only three members.  It lacked the necessary policy which would prescribe the method to fill vacancies.

The vacancies were created by the resignations Noel Brandt and Karl Anderson. 


An ad was prematurely placed in the Iron County Miner asking for interested parties to apply for the two vacant Board seats.  The problem was that a policy did not exist citing the qualifications for Board membership or the procedure for selecting from the candidates applying.

Two Mercer residents did apply – Rich Pegg, a retired attorney, and Sue Loth, a retired schoolteacher.   At its May meeting the Board agreed that it would honor their applications.  It has been suggested that the two candidates who lost out in the April School Board election should also be considered.  They are Christa Reinert, who narrowly lost her bid for reelection, and Paul Chaney.

The Board presently consist of Bob Davis and Jim Hannemann, both newly elected in the April election, and Micki Pierce-Holmstrom. 

School Board Policy 0142.5 “Filling a Board Vacancy” now reads: 

The vacancy shall be filled by the Board using the following procedure:

A.     The Board shall seek qualified and interested candidates from the community by posting a vacancy at the Town Hall, Associated Bank and Iron County Miner.

B.     All applicants are to submit a notice of their interest, in writing, to the District Office.

C.     The Board may interview all interested candidates to ascertain their qualifications.

D.    Appointments to the Board to fill a vacancy shall be by a majority of the existing Board.  Should the Board be unable to select a candidate by a majority vote of the existing Board members, the candidate may be selected by the Board President.
 

Sunday, June 23, 2019


The Secret Settlement
HOW MUCH DID THE FUND 80 FIASCO COST TAXPAYERS?
You have to wonder why the Mercer School Board’s settlement with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for the District’s Fund 80 abuses was approved in closed session and Mercer residents have not been told what it involves.
The reason for the secrecy may be because the savings from the District’s appeal was not all that great.  It appears that the District was still on the hook for about $125,000, plus legal fees, for improperly using Fund 80 Community Services funds.  The DPI had originally claimed that $185,465 had been misused.
Lawyer-written settlements, by nature, are difficult for the layman to understand.  However, the settlement, effective May 8, 2019, and signed by Bob Davis, president of the Mercer School Board, and Michael Thompson, DPI deputy superintendent, requires the District to pay the DPI $37,214.95. The DPI received the District’s check on June 3. 
On the surface, a payment of $37,214.95 to settle an original $185,465.42 claim for misuse of taxpayer Fund 80 seems like a good deal. However, the settlement agreement seems to have actually cost Mercer taxpayers a total of approximately $125,000, plus unreimbursed legal fees.  As the result of a District appeal, the DPI accepted explanations of eligible Fund 80 expenses for about $60,000, reversing its original decision. The DPI disallowed the use of the Fund 80 to pay salaries and benefits to Administrator Erik Torkelson and several staff members.
However, maybe it wasn’t such a good deal when adding the $37,214.95 to what appears to be $87,300.11.  This money was withheld from the District in 2016-17 state aid funds for Fund 80 abuses.
The legal fees paid for filing an appeal could amount to the better part of about $37,000.  Since Torkelson hired Mary Gerbig of the Davis-Kuelthau law firm in April 2018, about $70,000 has been paid through April to the firm, $33,000 of which has been reimbursed by the District’s insurer. 
The settlement agreement also notes: “Certain School District expenditures were incorrectly identified as Fund 80 expenditures instead of Fund 10 expenditures, but those certain expenditures were otherwise utilized appropriately for public school operations.”
The settlement is also intended to prevent the abuses of the past by requiring that the School District “shall implement a corrective action plan”.  The plan requires that the District “shall maintain documentation demonstrating the eligibility of any expenditures in Fund 80”. 
So, whatever the settlement’s actual cost, Torkelson’s blunder has been costly for Mercer taxpayers.