BENEFITS -- $30,704
TOTAL -- $168,641
CONTRACT -- $98,000
Increased to $113,500 for 2017-18

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Another Taxpayer Rip-off

At the July Mercer School Board meeting Administrator Erik Torkelson had the Board approve a “memorandum of understanding,” which he said allows him to pay part of his salary and benefits from Community Service Fund 80. 
He gave his own compensation package as an example: “95% of my salary and benefits is taken out of the General Fund and 5% is taken out of the Community Service Fund” for the work he says he performs in administering  community activities.  “No one is getting more money.  It’s how the money is distributed out of which fund.”
Sounds like a reasonable action, and it is what the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction requires to keep school districts from raiding Fund 80 to hold down General Fund salary expenses. 
But, that isn’t at all the way it works in the Mercer school district.  Instead Torkelson is taking Fund 80 money and adding it to his regular salary, not making it a part of the salary.  It gets worse.
For the 2016-17 school year his contractual salary should have been $98,000, plus benefits of about $15,000.  Instead he paid himself $131,040 in salary, plus benefits of $29,169.  On top of this he added another $6,897 to salary and another $1,535 in benefits from Fund 80 for services he alleged performed in managing the mostly phony Fund 80 activities. 
As a result Torkelson paid himself a whopping $168,641 in total salary and benefits for the 2016-17 school year.  In the prior year he managed to pay himself $161,336 in salary and benefits.  And nobody on the School Board seems to be able to explain these major discrepancies or how they let it happen.  Christa Reinert is the only Board member who has been trying to get answers but has been stonewalled by Torkelson and Board President Deanna Pierpont.
Torkelson’s booty makes him the 9th highest paid administrator of the state’s 424 school administrators.  On a cost per student basis he ranks number 2.
Torkelson uses the same “memorandum of understanding” to add Fund 80 money to the pay packages of four of his staff members, not as a part of the regular salaries.
For example:  Lori Boltz, the school’s business manager, received a regular salary of $53,162 and benefits of $22,577.  Another $12,235 of salary and $5,509 of benefits of Fund 80 money was heaped on top of her regular salary and benefits to give her a total take home package of $93,483. 
So why the charade by pretending that the “memorandum of understanding” represents pay for that portion of time that Torkelson and staff members spend performing Fund 80 duties?  He is not making it a part of their salaries, which the feckless Department of Public Instruction requires, but is adding it to their regular salaries and benefits packages.
Fund 80 was created to provide services for community members, not as a honey bucket for administrators to dip into to pad the regular payroll.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

$168,641 and Headed for $184,000+
The Mercer School District set another unsavory record with Administrator Erik Torkelson’s total compensation package possibly making him the second highest paid of the state’s 424 administrators on a cost per student basis.
For 2016-17 Torkelson’s total take-home package was equal to $1,259 per student.  For the prior year it was $1,204.
Mercer School records show that for the school year 2016-17 Torkelson took home $168,641 in salary and benefits.  For the 2015-16 he took home $161,336, which made him the 11th highest paid administrator in the state.  State records for 2016-17 are not as yet available, but based on year-earlier data Torkelson could move up into the 9th highest paid position.
His contract in 2015-16 and 2016-17 provided for a base pay of $98,000 plus benefits of about $15,000.  No one is able to explain and there was no apparent school board approval for him to take home $121,307 and $131,040 in cash for each of the years.  His base pay was raised to $113,500 for the new 2017-18 school year by the board at its June meeting.
On a pro forma basis with a new base pay of $113,500 and 2016-17 benefits of $37,601, plus an unexplained $33,040 in cash, Torkelson’s 2017-18 booty could reach more than $184,000. 
And this with a dismal Mercer school composite ACT score of 18.1 which is far below the state average of 20.1.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Mercer residents have learned not to believe much of what is written in the FYI Northwoods about the Mercer School Board and its administrator.  But the newspaper’s coverage of the June 26 meeting was just too much.
The FYI reported that the board gave Administrator Erik Torkelson a new base-rate salary of $113,500.   That part is true, although last year he actually took home $132,040 in cash and another $29,296 in benefits for a total of $161,336.   His contract provided for $98,000 in cash and about $15,000 in benefits.
But here’s the real kicker:  FYI said that his new salary was approved by a 4 to 1 vote, with Torkelson’s mother-in-law Kelly Kohegyi voting against the pay raise.  Now you don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to figure out that his mother-in-law would not vote against a pay raise for her son-in-law.
The FYI reporter compounds his use of “alternative facts” by further stating that voting for the salary increase were board members Christa Reinert, Micki Pierce-Holmstrom, Noel Brandt and Board President Deanna Pierpont.  Christa Reinert would NEVER agree to increase Torkelson’s salary because she and others are still waiting for an explanation of how Torkelson managed to scoop up the $161,336 without any apparent board approval.
Mother-in-law Kohegyi abstained from voting, which legally she was required to do.  So the vote was actually 3 to 1 with Christa Reinert voting a big NO.  (See MSF More $$$$$$ for Torkelson 6/27/71)
The FYI reporter went on to say that Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction figures show that Torkelson was paid $98,000 for the 2015-16 school year.  DPI records show his contracted salary, not what he actually took home. Any enterprising reporter would have asked for the school’s own records, and they would show the $162,232 booty.
Regular coverage of the monthly school board meetings contains nothing but praise for the administrator and the board, except when it gets an opportunity to criticize board member Christa Reinert, who was elected to clean up the school district mess – the mismanagement of school funds, a below-average composite ACT score, the showing of the sexually explicit movie “50 Shades of Grey” to young school girls, the conviction and fine for violating the public records law, the Iron County district’s attorney’s ruling that  the board violated the open meetings law, and on and on.
So much for the shoddy reporting by FYI Northwoods and its use of “alternative facts.”

Monday, July 10, 2017

Another School Tax Increase
The groundwork was further laid at the June Mercer School Board meeting for another school tax increase.  This one could cost property owners possibly as much as a 10% increase in school taxes.  It would not be a one-time hit, but could remain on tax bills for as much as 20 years.  And it could be done without taxpayer approval. (See MSF Mercer Taxpayer Alert 6/19/17)
The increase would result from a $2,432,000 to $2,673,200 improvement program to the school building, which Administrator Erik Torkelson has deemed as “critical.”  An “option” for additional improvements could add another $650,000 to the total costs.  
At the May School Board meeting, representatives of McKinstry Co., an engineering and consulting firm hired by the school to perform an audit of the physical plant, presented a preliminary report.  At the June meeting, McKinstry representatives detailed what they said were the needed repairs: roof replacement (part of the roof was replaced two years ago with a $300,000 loan which is costing taxpayers $126,671 in finance charges), lighting and electrical improvements, mechanical upgrades, including a new boiler, and window and door replacements.
A McKinstry representative seemed to outstep his bounds when he said he wanted to dispel the myth that closing the school would save the taxpayers money.  In his comments, which were probably aided by coaching, he said that by sending the students elsewhere “your taxes are going way up and transportation is going to kill you”.    
Apparently without the benefit of any creditable study, he also said that without a school the value of Mercer houses may drop. “That’s very factual, very obvious, that’s the hard reality,” he added.  Of course, McKinstry would like the Mercer school improvement program business.
There are many pros and cons for closing the school. This is not the first time the issue has been raised as to the questionable quality of education the students receive vs.  the cost of operating a K12 school with only 134 students.
But another school tax increase?
Mercer taxpayers are still smarting from a punishing 2013 $650,000 tax increase referendum which was misrepresented to them when told it would cost a meager $11 per $100,000 assessed property valuation but actually cost $137.   This resulted in a whopping 37 % increase in school taxes.  And the referendum is forever, not for just a limited number of years, which is usually the case with tax increase referendums.
But what are the options to another school tax increase?  MSF invites readers to submit their suggestions in the comment section following this blog.  Suitable suggestions will be incorporated into a future blog.  No foul language or name calling, please.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Try to Figure This One Out
The Mercer School Board Monday night voted a pay increase for Administrator Erik Torkelson which will probably place him among the 10 highest paid of Wisconsin’s 424 administrators.  The board voted 3 to 1 to increase his base pay to $113,500 from $98,000 a year, a whopping 16% increase.
Torkelson’s base pay isn’t what could make him one of the highest paid administrators in the state.  It’s what he might actually take home.  Last year, even with a base pay of $98,000, he managed to take home $132,049 in cash, plus benefits of $29,296, for a total of $161,336.
No one seems to be able to explain how he managed to receive an extra $34,049 in base pay without any apparent School Board approval, which would have been required.
So, at a new base pay of $113,500, and if he is manages to take another unexplained $35,000 in cash, plus $30,000 in benefits, he could end up with a total compensation package of more than $178,000.   Even the State Superintendent of Public Instruction receives only $121,307 a year.
Torkelson's salary was heatedly debated during a two-hour long closed  session of the school board.  The loan dissenter to the increase when the vote was taken was Christa Reinert, who regularly represents Mercer taxpayer and student interests.
Micki Pierce Holmstrom, who as a relator is working for Torkelson in an attempt sell his Manitowish Waters home, made the motion to increase his base pay.  The motion was seconded by Noel Brandt, and, of course, Torkelson supporter Deanna Pierpont voted “yes”.  Torkelson’s mother-in-law and board member Kelly Kohegyi had to abstain from voting because of the family relationship.
Not bad pay for the administrator of a school with an ACT composite score of only 18.1, which ranks it well below other schools and below the state average of 20.1.

Saturday, June 24, 2017


Country Western music buffs will remember the tune “Behind Closed Doors” made popular by Charlie Rich in the l970s.  Well, the Mercer School Board has its own version, and it’s “played” at just about every monthly board meeting.
But, the May Board “closed session” was of particular interest because of an attempt to sneak through a pay increase for Administrator Erik Torkelson.  It doesn’t seem to matter that the $161,336 he somehow managed to take home last year made him the 11th highest paid of Wisconsin’s 424 administrators.  He apparently wants more, and School Board President Deanna Pierpont appears ready to give it to him.
So, what’s on the agenda again for this Monday night’s “closed session” of the School Board meeting?  ”Administration Contracts”, of course.
Torkelson’s present contract provides for an annual salary of $98,000, plus benefits of about $15,000.  We know that included in the $161,336 he took home was $6,602 in pay and $1,465 in benefits from Community Service Fund 80. That was allegedly for administering questionably existing projects.
The big mystery is where the other $40,270 that Torkelson took home came from.
But, back to the May “closed session.”  It’s difficult to find out what happens “behind those closed doors” because board members are prohibited from discussing it.  It’s not too difficult to imagine what happened.
Pierpont and Board member Micki Pierce-Holmstrom would probably vote for anything Torkelson wants.  After all, Pierce Holmstrom works for Torkelson in trying to sell his Manitowish Waters home. (A conflict of interest?)  Torkelson’s mother-in-law and board member Kelly Kohegyi was prohibited from being present because of the family relationship.
That leaves Noel Brandt and Christa Reinert who must be raising legitimate questions about why Torkelson needs more pay and benefits when he is already taking home an unexplained $40,270 of a total $161,336 package.
You’ll want to tune in to the Monday evening Mercer School Board version of “Behind Closed Doors”.   Oh, we forgot.  It’s a secret meeting so you won’t be able to hear it.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mercer Taxpayer Alert
The stage was apparently set at the May Mercer School Board meeting for another whopping school tax increase.  And this one can be done by exceeding property tax levy limits without taxpayer approval. 
What could amount to a cost of several million dollars is in the form of needed repairs to the school’s physical plant.  The school building infrastructure was described as “aging” with some of its systems and equipment at “end of life.”   
This assessment was given by a representative of the McKinstry Co., an engineering and consulting firm hired by the school to perform an audit of the physical plant to determine the need for repairs to the building and the replacement of equipment.  And the report was abysmal.
Everything from the boiler, to the roof, to lighting, to the windows, to air handling units, to the electric panels, and on and on, seems to be in need of repair or replacement.  It sounded like the building is falling apart.
The repairs can be financed as result of Wisconsin Act 32 which allows school districts to approve a taxpayer assessment in excess of the levy limits without a referendum.  The Act is designed to implement energy efficient measures.  The McKinstry representative estimated that these improvements could result in an energy savings cost to the school of about $70,000 a year.
McKinstry will provide a breakdown of the cost of the repairs at the June 26 school board meeting.  Act 32 requires that the property tax assessment must be taken in one year with five years to complete the projects.
School board member Christa Reinert asked for a prioritization of the repair needs. 
Mercer taxpayers are still smarting from a punishing 2013 $650,000 tax increase referendum which was misrepresented to them by Administrator Erik Torkelson and school board members when told it would cost a meager $11 per $100,000 assessed property tax valuation but actually cost $137.  That increase is forever, not for just a limited number of years, which is usually the case with tax increase referendums.

So, Mr., Mrs., Miss. Mercer Taxpayer, you might get ready for another school tax increase.

(For the record: A different portion of the roof was replaced about a year ago at a cost of $250,000.  A 20-year $300,000 loan was taken out to pay for the work, although Torkelson had more than $1 million of taxes collected but unused sitting idling in the bank.  That loan will cost Mercer taxpayers $126,671 in interest expenses. There remains more than $1 million in fund balances, part of which could be used for the proposed repairs without a tax increase.
Perhaps by suggesting a prioritization of the repair work, Christa Reinert is looking for a way to avoid a big tax hike, and, instead, do the work over a period of time paying for it from the normal budget.)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Mercer School Facts


Administrator Erik Torkelson’s salary and benefits -- $161,336

11th highest paid of Wisconsin’s 424 administrators*

Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction comp. $121,307


Mercer                    $26,138

Wisconsin                 12,842

National                    10,667

Lakeland Union       20,789

Hurley                       12,938

Rhinelander              12,741

University of Wisconsin-Madison – $22,082**

Mercer administrator’s salary on a cost-per-student basis -- $1,204

Average ACT composite scores:***

          Mercer                       18.1

          Wisconsin                  20.1

          National                     20.8

          Lakeland Union        19.7

          Hurley                        19.4

         Rhinelander               19.6

 *On a cost-per-student basis.
**Includes annual tuition, room and board, fees, books, etc.
***Perfect score is 36.
All data is from DPI and Mercer School District records.  

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Failed Coup d’Etat?

An apparent attempt to dump Deanna Pierpont as Mercer School Board president fell short by one vote.   Two of the five board members voted no to a motion to reelect the present board, which included Pierpont, who is Administrator Erik Torkelson’s protector, as president. 
While the reelected officers also include Noel Brandt as vice president, Kelly Kohegyi, Torkelson’s mother-in law, as clerk, and Micki Pierce-Holmstrom as treasurer, it was clear that the “no” vote was intended to get rid of Pierpont and possibly even Kohegyi.
Board members Christa Reinert and Brandt voted no on the motion by board member Pierce- Holmstrom to reelect the present board.  While there appeared to be an interest in making a change, Pierce-Holmstrom’s motion should probably come as no surprise because she has been a Pierpont/Kohegyi/Torkelson cohort and has sat mute when questions of administration improprieties were raised.
Pierpont has come under fire for withholding information about how Torkelson received a salary of $132,040 ($161,336 with benefits) when his contract limits his pay to $98,000.  She has not helped in making public information about misspending of Fund 80 money, and has attempted to restrict the rights of board members to speak at meetings.
When the “50 Shades of Grey” scandal erupted, Pierpont failed to take a leadership role in disciplining her close friend Kohegyi and teacher Robyn Schoeneman for renting and showing the sexually explicit R-rated movie to young school girls.  Instead, Pierpont suggested obtaining a restraining order against Christa, who had become very vocal about demanding disciplinary action.  The restraining order has since expired.
For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with the “50 Shades” scandal (although we don’t know how that would be possible because the event received national – even international – publicity) the page one story from the Milwaukee Journal follows:

'Fifty Shades of Grey' viewing sparks battle at Northwoods school
By Annysa Johnson of the Journal Sentinel 

A decision by two high school volleyball coaches — one a teacher, the other a School Board member — to show the sexploitation film "Fifty Shades of Grey" to a carful of teenage girls has plunged a tiny town in northern Wisconsin into a contentious and highly personal School Board race. 

Mercer High School parent and School Board candidate Christa Reinert was slapped with a restraining order last month, accused of harassing Robyn Schoeneman, the teacher who — along with School Board member Kelly Kohegyi — allowed members of the girls volleyball team to watch the movie on a road trip to a tournament. 

Schoeneman describes Reinert in court records as a volatile bully who has waged a seven-month campaign of "harassment, intimidation and slander" in an effort to get her fired.  

Reinert denies the accusations and calls them politically motivated. She says Schoeneman sought the court's protection only after Reinert declared her candidacy in January, and that the teacher did so at the urging of School Board President Deanna Pierpont — one of two candidates up for re-election Tuesday. 

"They're trying to defame me and keep me from being on the School Board because I don't see eye-to-eye with the administration on grading and other issues," said Reinert, who runs the Flambeau Flowage Sports and adjacent Looney Beans Coffee shops on Highway 51, the main drag through this Iron County town of 1,400. 

Reinert insists she holds no animosity toward Schoeneman — she points to the friendly texts they've exchanged in recent months — but says the school district mishandled the film incident. And she thinks Schoeneman is being used in a way that lets Kohegyi off the hook. 

"There's more going on here," Reinert said of her ongoing concerns about the district, which include bullying and a lack of transparency. "But this (film) was the straw that broke the camel's back." 

Schoeneman, who is considering filing a lawsuit, according to her petition, declined to comment, referring questions to her attorney, Daniel Snyder. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Pierpont and Kohegyi also did not respond. Mercer Principal and Administrator Erik Torkelson said he would talk only about Mercer's kudos from the state for its efforts to close achievement gaps and promote effective teaching, learning and good governance. 

Beyond close-knit 

Mercer, billed as the "loon capital of the world," is a small town in southern Iron County whose lakes and forests draw vacationers and outdoor enthusiasts most of the year. The town is home to the tiny Mercer School District, which serves about 140 students in kindergarten through 12th grade in a single school. 

Current and former residents describe the town as close-knit, overly so, where many families are related by blood or by marriage. Torkelson, for example, is the son-in-law of School Board member and coach Kohegyi. And Schoeneman, who teaches fourth-through-sixth-grade science and health, grew up with his wife and was a bridesmaid in their wedding.

Transplants, they say — even those like Reinert, who've lived there for decades — tend to be eyed with suspicion. 

"If you weren't born here, you're an outsider," said Dick Kemplin, a retired Chicago executive who has lived in the community full time for 20 years and has tangled with the School Board over taxes and transparency.  

"When I spoke at a School Board meeting, a guy told me to 'go back to Arizona where you came from,'" said Kemplin, a Reinert supporter. "I was only there once, in 1950 on a troop train heading for the Korean War."  

Road trip film 

The controversy surrounding the film stems from August 2015 when Schoeneman and Kohegyi drove the girls volleyball team to Oconto Falls, en route to a tournament in Crivitz. 

According to court records, Schoeneman explained that she drove the freshmen and Kohegyi carted the juniors and seniors. 

Schoeneman says the older girls picked out the film at the local grocery store and that she initially objected. They argued that everyone in the car was either 17 — the age limit for an R-rated film — or had already seen it. She agreed to rent it, but said it would be up to Kohegyi whether they could watch it. They did, she said, with headphones on, in the back of Kohegyi's Suburban. 

The 2015 film was based on the blockbuster erotica trilogy that featured the sadomasochistic sexual escapades of a young woman and her psychologically manipulative lover. The books, widely derided as poorly written "mommy porn," were banned by some libraries and drew protests from women's organizations that called it misogynistic. 

"At no time was any girl in my car subject to the content of the movie, or discussion about the movie," Schoeneman says in her petition. 

Reinert, whose 14-year-old daughter rode in Schoeneman's car, disputes that, but says it misses the point.

"There's just no place for it with kids," said Reinert, who called the movie degrading to women. 

"If they told you they smoked a joint and had sex with their boyfriends, would you let them do it again? It's setting a precedent for bad behavior... and condoning it," she said. 

According to the transcript of the two-hour restraining order hearing before Iron County Circuit Judge Patrick Madden, the girls who viewed the video were 16 and 17. Torkelson, the school administrator, testified that he spoke with the parents of all of those girls and that they "had zero issue with the incident."

He said Schoeneman and Kohegyi were properly disciplined, but neither he nor Schoeneman would say what that involved 

Kohegyi did not respond to requests for comment and did not testify at the hearing. 

Schoeneman says Reinert has accused her of committing sex crimes against children by renting the film for them, and insists she is behind one of the anonymous letters sent to Sheriff Tony Furyk demanding he investigate. 

Torkelson testified during the hearing that the ordeal has taken a toll on the school and Schoeneman. 

"We've had a successful and vibrant staff member who has become a shell of her former self." 

Reinert admits sending Schoeneman the state statute that describes the act of exposing children under 18 to harmful material — including sexually specific content — as a felony. But she denies calling her a sex offender or writing the letters to the sheriff.  

Her issue, she says, is that the school district handled the matter in secret.  

"I told her to read the statute.... I never once implied that she should be fired or they should be prosecuted," Reinert said. "My point was that they were pushing it under the rug and acting like it's no big deal. And it is a big deal." 

Reinert, who represented herself at the restraining order hearing, has since secured an attorney. He filed motions last week asking Madden to reconsider his decision and schedule a new trial, saying new evidence has emerged proving Reinert didn't write the anonymous letter to the sheriff: a signed affidavit from its author. 

Even if she had, it would not constitute harassment, said attorney John Stella, because it's "a legitimate exercise of free speech by a concerned citizen." 

Stella also questions how Torkelson could have disciplined Kohegyi, his mother-in-law and employer.

"In what fantasy world can a district administrator discretely discipline his own boss?" he says in one of the filings. 

Reinert insists that she and her family are the ones being harassed. She says her freshman daughter has been needled by the volleyball captains and singled out for criticism by the coaches since her mother began speaking up. And in February, Reinert says, she received an anonymous envelope in the mail. In it were open-enrollment forms — a suggestion that she move her freshmen twins to another school district.

Two days after the restraining order was issued, Torkelson called the police on Reinert when she brought her children's lunches to the school.  

Sheriff's investigation 

The Iron County Sheriff's Office did investigate the incident involving the film, though Lt. Paul Samardich said he only interviewed Torkelson and not the parents of the teen girls. He did not recommend charges, saying it was a "matter for the school administration to deal with, and it appears they have done so." 

This isn't the first controversy to engulf the Mercer School District.

The board was admonished last year by Iron County District Attorney Marty Lipske for violating state open meetings law two years earlier. 

This year, the Lakeland Times newspaper gave the district a D-minus in transparency in a feature marking Sunshine Week, an annual initiative aimed at promoting openness in government. 

It's also not the first time Reinert has been subject to a restraining order, or that Schoeneman's judgment has been called into question.

A county dispatcher obtained a restraining order against Reinert in 2005 over comments she made after Reinert's husband was injured in a motorcycle accident. 

Schoeneman was fired in 2009 over an incident involving fellow chaperon and board member Shannon Hiller during a senior trip to Florida. Schoeneman was rehired, but Hiller lost his seat in a recall. 

Schoeneman went on to sue another School Board member and his wife, a fellow teacher, accusing them of defamation and interfering with her job for statements they made about the incident. The lawsuit was dismissed with no financial settlement. 

Others interviewed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel say Reinert can be tough, outspoken, even strident — "She hunts bears with bows and arrows," said Thiede, a supporter. But they said they also took issue with the showing of the film, and agreed with Reinert that most people are afraid to speak up. 

"Families in this town are so intertwined — if you're not happy with something, you're not going to stick your neck out," Reinert said. "I did it because I'm tired of it. 

About Annysa Johnson

Annysa Johnson covers K-12 education in southeastern Wisconsin