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




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. 
 

 
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.
 
 

 

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. 

 
 

 

Thursday, June 6, 2019


A Very Sad Time for Mercer
AN ATTACK ON FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND THE PRESS
When our forefathers drafted the First Amendment to our Constitution they may have had in mind that someday, somewhere a small group of disrupters would want to try to squelch freedom of speech and of the press.  But that seems to be what is happening in Mercer. 
What has been sacred to Americans, and for what many have fought and died for, is now under attack by an anonymous group and other individuals parading under the such pseudonyms as the Committee for Position Action (CPA) and Micah Magma.  They have gone so far as to dupe people into unknowingly signing away, in a petition, their First Amendment Rights under the mistaken belief that it would remedy a serious community wide problem.
The problem dividing the community is not the public print and broadcast sources, the social media or individuals who are reporting the news about the mismanagement of the school.  The root cause of the problem is a Mercer School administration and its followers (the CPA and Micah Magma) which are trying to prevent disclosure about the failure to provide our youth with a needed education and the administration’s mismanagement and misspending.
Of course, Mercer School Administrator Erik Torkelson and his minions would want to eliminate the chance for anyone to criticize his failed administration.  In an earlier statement to the news media Torkelson even asked that those critical of his administration should be “silenced”.   But, can you imagine a society where no one would be able to criticize what is clearly a major problem?  Of course, it has happened before in such places as Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union.
A recent attempt to undermine our Constitution was the result of a letter by an unsuspecting Mercer person, probably written by someone in the CPA gang, asking Town Chairman John Sendra to have the Iron County District Attorney do away with our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and the press by eliminating this blogsite.  Ironically, the author of the letter wrote,"I am aware of the first amendment rights,” but went on anyway to say, in effect, that they should not apply in Mercer’s case. 
Instead of laughing off the matter, Sendra took the letter to the DA who probably felt that the whole idea was absurd.  Sendra committed another faux pas by inappropriately bringing up the subject at a Town Board meeting, a venue where it had no reason to be discussed. 
 
What is it about the school’s administration that is so wrong that the Torkelson followers want to silence all chances for criticism and reporting?  They say that such criticism is dividing the community.  But it is they who are dividing the community by continually trying to prevent open dialogue and reporting of the facts.

The objective of any despotic regime is to eliminate the chance for criticism.  This is what our forefathers saw as an imminent danger to our Republic when they felt it was important enough to make freedom speech and the press as the NUMBER ONE amendment to our Constitution -- not number four, five of six.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019


A Shocking Disappointment
KARL ANDERSON RESIGNS FROM SCHOOL BOARD
Just when Mercer citizens were beginning to have hope that they would have a School Board that represented the best interests of the students and the community¸ a bombshell was dropped at Tuesday night’s meeting.  Karl Anderson resigned his seat on the Board without any explanation.
Until Monday’s meeting, composition of the Board was up for grabs. It consisted of Anderson, newly elected members Jim Hannemann and Bob Davis and Micki Pierce-Holmstrom.  Anderson and Hannemann wanted to restore sadly lacking honesty and transparency to management of the school, the allegiance of Bob Davis is unknown and Micki Pierce-Holmstrom is controlled by Administrator Erik Torkelson.
The Board was faced with appointing someone to fill a seat vacated in April by Noel Brandt.  Now, it has two vacant seats which the three-member Board will need to fill until the Spring, 2020, election.  Brandt’s three-year term would have expired in 2020 and Anderson would have had one year remaining on his term. This means that Brandt’s three-year term and Anderson’s one-year term will be up for election in the Spring.

Anderson was elected to the Board in the Spring, 2018, election, defeating Kelly Kohegyi.  Kohegyi was voted off the Board because of her conflict of interest as  mother-in-law of Administrator Torkelson and as a result of the scandal that erupted over her showing the sexually explicit movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” to young Mercer schoolgirls.
Anderson bonded with Board member Christa Reinert in a struggle with three members controlled by Torkelson.  Two of three, Brandt and Deanna Pierpont, are no longer on the Board.  However, Reinert was defeated in her bid for reelection this Spring as a result of a smear campaign conducted by Torkelson followers. During her first three-year term Reinert worked diligently to expose poor academic performance, misuse of school tax dollars, unwarranted pay to the administrator and other improprieties.
If Anderson had remained on the Board he and Hannemann would have a chance to add a third appointed member supportive of cleaning up the administrative mess.   

Thursday, May 23, 2019


The School Board Conundrum
2 - 1 -? - ?
The new Mercer School Board could face its first big challenge at its May 28 meeting: it may need to select a Board member to fill a vacant seat.
Going into the May 28 meeting, the Board consists of two members who want to repair the failed administration, one member who supports it, a new member whose allegiance is yet to be determined and the questionable unfilled spot.
The challenge at the meeting is whether to pick a person free of ties to the failed school administration and who will truly represent the best interests of the students and community or select another minion of Administrator Erik Torkelson.
There appears to be some controversy about the new Board member selection process.  At the April School Board meeting it was agreed that the procedure would be discussed at the May meeting.  Then, without the required Board approval, an ad appeared in the Iron County Miner soliciting applications for the vacant Board position by May 10 and stating that a selection would be made at the May 28 meeting.  Who created the ad and placed it in the Miner appears to be a mystery.
Mercer voters have been slowly making progress toward ridding themselves of a School Board which totally ignored unacceptable academic results and gross mismanagement and misspending.   
Until a few years ago, Torkelson controlled all five Board members. That control has eroded to where it appears that he now totally controls only one Board member, Micki Pierce-Holmstrom, owner of Century 21 Pierce Realty.  Filling the open Board seat with a person independent of Torkelson can be a deciding factor in whether the Board can function in the best interests of the students and the community or in the best interest of Torkelson.
Board members Karl Anderson and Jim Hannemann represent the best interests of the students and the community.  Newly elected Board member Bob Davis can be important in swinging the balance of power away from Torkelson and allow the Board to assume its rightful responsibility of managing school affairs. But will he? 
Supporters of Torkelson have been circulating petitions for one of his minions to influence the selection of the new School Board member.  The petitioning carries no weight and, humorously, looks like the amateurish selection of a prom queen.

If the selecting of an appointed Board member proceeds on May 28, Davis has to realize that the person selected must be totally independent of Torkelson and his followers. That person must be someone who possesses the determination and qualities capable of helping restore successful academic results and the honest and transparent management of school affairs.

Thursday, May 16, 2019


A Lesson to be Learned
BEWARE OF THOSE BEARING GIFTS
Do you remember McKInstry, the engineering company Mercer School District Administrator Erik Torkelson and School Board President Noel Brandt wanted to hire to manage a $4 million school improvement project?  Well, the firm was involved in a major bribery scandal which cost the administrator in another school district his job.  
Crandon School District Administrator Doug Kryder had been on paid administrative leave for nearly seven months while he was under police investigation for possible misconduct in office.  Now, Kryder is out of a job.  In accepting Kryder’s resignation, the Crandon School Board said that “it was mutually agreed that separation was best for all parties involved”.
The investigation revealed that a McKinstry executive offered Kryder low-cost Las Vegas golf vacations and free meals and drinks at conferences, according to email uncovered in the investigation.  Forest County District Attorney Chuck Simono said that the emails also referenced trips to the Kentucky Derby and the  Eau Claire-Chippewa Falls area.  Simono said that Kryder accepted the company’s offers more than once, an allegation Kryder denied. 
Kryder later advised the Crandon School Board to sign a nearly million-dollar contract with McKinstry to make energy efficiency improvements in the school. 
At the conclusion of the investigation, Simono decided not to charge Kryder with misconduct in office.  But Simono said Kryder committed “ethical violations” in his dealings with McKinstry. 
While he was the administrator, Kryder came under major criticism by school staff members and community residents for having a heavy-handed and arbitrary management style.  He controlled the five-member school board, which would do as commanded, a Crandon resident said.  (Sound familiar?)
A Crandon community group called Citizens United for Education was formed and demanded Kryder’s removal.  The group also led massive community recall campaigns, which resulted in removing two of the five Crandon School Board members.  A third member resigned, and a fourth new member has been elected to the board.   This has changed the entire posture of board, making it now responsive to staff, students and community interests, the resident added.
At about the same time the Crandon situation was developing, McKinstry was invited into the Mercer School by Torkelson and Brandt to do a facilities improvement plan.  A long list of projects was produced which would have cost about $4 million, plus about $2 million in interest.  When it became apparent that Mercer voter approval of a $6 million tax increase referendum would most certainly fail, the plan was dropped. 
Although Forest County DA Simono did not charge McKinstry with a crime, he said he asked the Wisconsin Department of Justice to investigate McKinstry’s business practices with schools across the state.
At the same time the DA said McKinstry was showering the Crandon administrator with gifts, McKinstry made a $250 scholarship donation to the Crandon school.  Guess what!  While McKinstry was courting Torkelson the firm gave a $250 scholarship donation to the Mercer school.  (Receipt No. 724718, dated 6/1/17)

Wednesday, May 8, 2019


The Administrator’s Pay and Benefits
ANOTHER INVESTIGATION?
Fresh from concluding the investigation and the dismissal of criminal
felony charges against five present and former School Board member, the Iron County Sheriff’s Department hinted that it may be conducting another investigation.
In an outstanding telecast by Rose McBride on WFTW Channel 12 in Rhinelander she said that when she asked the Iron County Sheriff’s Department to comment about the criminal felony charges, she was told it could not because “this is an ongoing investigation”.  (See MSF 4/11/19 The News That Rocked Mercer)
So, what could the “ongoing investigation” be about?  The investigation concerning the signing of the May 1, 2018, School Board letter and the destruction of a public record appears to have been concluded with Iron County Circuit Judge Patrick Madden mysterious dismissing them in an unprecedented action.
A major remaining unresolved issue involves the pay of Administrator Erik Torkelson.  Since he was hired in 2011 by his mother-in-law Kelly Kohegyi, president of the Mercer School Board at that time, he has taken home pay and benefits far in excess of his what his contract allows. Could the investigation be about that? 
Torkelson’s 2011 contract limited his pay to $98,000 and benefits to about $30,000.  A July 2017 contract increased his base pay to $113,500, but the contract is illegal because it was never approved by the Board in an open session.  During his tenure, he has also been paid bonuses which, again, were illegal because they were never approved by the Board in open session. But, look at what Mercer School documents show Torkelson actually has taken home in the past several years:
2017-18        $165,963
2016-17        $168,641
2015-16        $161,336
While Torkelson has been the administrator and drawing such exorbitant compensation, the school’s ACT composite scores have plummeted to well below state and national averages.  Also, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction School Report card score has placed Mercer 422nd in a list of all 422 Wisconsin school districts.
Hardly the kind of performance record that warrants a pay package of $165,963.
Add to this that we are paying $24,910 per year to educate each Mercer student, compared with a state average of $12,942 and national average of $10,667. The average annual all-inclusive cost for educating a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is $22,082.
Mercer school district documents concerning Torkelson’s pay and benefits have been given to District Attorney Matthew Tingstad, who along with Iron County Deputy Sheriff Lt. Paul Foryan, conducted the earlier investigation.
Let’s hope the “ongoing investigation” leads to Mercer taxpayers getting back some of their hard-earned money.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019


“Friends in High Places”
THE JUDGE AND HIS “MERCER 5” PALS
The saying “There is something rotten in Denmark” could very well apply to the Iron County Circuit Court of Judge Patrick Madden.  
This line from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is interpreted by scholars of his writings to mean “there was something wrong with a certain situation – there was cause to be suspicious of people and their motives”
And there certainly is cause to be suspicious of the way in which Judge Madden handled the dismissal of the criminal felony charges against the “Mercer 5.” The news coverage by the three local newspapers would lead someone to conclude that the defendants’ best attorney was the judge himself.
In what was supposed to be an initial appearance of the five present and former Mercer School Board members, for some inexplicable reason, Judge Madden moved right into hearing motions for dismissal of the charges. This is very rarely done with criminal felony proceedings.  Such dismissal motions, filed by the defendants’ attorneys just one to three workings day before the initial appearances, would normally be heard at later court sessions.
At the start of the initial appearances, Madden ignored District Attorney Matthew Tingstad’s plea: “I am not prepared to argue today on the (dismissal) motions.  There was not enough notice.”  And before Madden dropped the final case, Tingstad said: “I didn’t even get to see the motion before coming into court, your honor”.  (This point was well made in an excellently written article by Abigail Bostwick in the Lakeland Times.)
This was not the first time that Madden has shown extraordinary favoritism to some of his pals on the Mercer School Board.  In a restraining order hearing about three years ago, he took the word of Deanna Pierpont, School Board president at the time and a defendant in the “Mercer 5” criminal cases, and Mercer School Administrator Erik Torkelson, that a letter alleging harassment of Mercer teacher Robyn Schoeneman had been written by Christa Reinert.  Christa was a candidate for election to the School Board and Pierpont and Torkelson knew they could not risk her being on the Board because of the possibility that she would have access to embarrassing and incriminating information about School Board and administrative practices.
Madden issued the restraining order, basing it on the false information that Christa had written the letter.  When another person submitted a sworn statement that he actually wrote the letter, Madden, showing loyalty to his School Board pals, denied a motion by Attorney Tony Stella to reverse his restraining order against Christa, even though there was proof that Christa had not written the letter.
As another saying goes,” It helps to have friends (Judge Madden) in high places.”
Contact DA Tingstad and encourage him to appeal the”Mercer 5” dismissals and email the Wisconsin Judicial Commission (www.wicourts.gov/judcom)  to ask for an investigation of Judge Madden’s conduct.

Friday, April 26, 2019


The Waning of an Autocracy
NEW BOARD MEMBERS INSTALLED; NEW OFFICERS ELECTED
In what may signal an end to control of the Mercer School Board by Administrator Erik Torkelson, two newly elected Board members were installed, and new officers elected at Monday night’s Board meeting.
Newly elected Jim Hannemann and Bob Davis took seats on the Board, and Bob Davis was elected Board president.  Karl Anderson was elected vice president, Jim Hannemann treasurer and Micki Pierce Holmstrom secretary.
Until three years ago, the five-member Board was totally controlled by Administrator Erik Torkelson, with all Board members blindly doing as he commanded.  That began to change three years ago with the election to the Board of Christa Reinert, who unseated Denise Thompson, owner of Tom’s Café in Mercer and a long-time supporter of Torkelson.  Torkelson had given Thompson’s daughter-in-law, Tricia Thompson, the very lucrative position of school business manager.
Christa began a relentless campaign of trying to restore sadly lacking honesty and transparency to the Board and administration.  She was consistently denied public records which she should have routinely received as a School Board member.
Then, a year ago, another advocate for honesty and transparency, Karl Anderson, was elected to the Board by unseating Torkelson’s mother-in-law, Kelly Kohegyi.
At this time, the School Board is comprised of Karl and Jim, who stand firmly for performing in the best interest of students and community, and Micki Pierce-Holmstrom, owner of Century 21 Pierce Realty in Mercer. She is the only remaining Board member whose loyalty seems to be to Torkelson. 
The jury is still out on where newly elected fourth member of the Board member Bob Davis will stand in supporting the failed administration.  Davis must overcome being identified with a group of Torkelson aficionados that ran a smear campaign to unseat Christa Reinert.  Davis repeated some of their many Christa falsehoods and even unwisely called the group “wonderful people”.  
The smear campaign strategy was mapped out by Torkelson and implemented by the Committee for Positive Action (aka Deanna Pierpont) and Micah Magma (aka Bill Brundage). Their divisive and dishonest efforts were successful and kept Christa from retaining her Board seat by only a mere 20 votes.  
The fifth seat on the Board, vacated by the resignation of Noel Brandt, will need to be filled by the present four Board members. Given the integrity of at least three of them, the prospect appears good in selecting a well-qualified and honest Board member. 
Also, at Monday night’s School Board meeting, Jim Hannemann proposed reviving the video recording of Board meetings and again making them available for public viewing.  The Board had recorded its meetings for the public from November 2016 through October 2017. The October 2017 meeting video was erased by then Board member Deanna Pierpont and further recording of meetings was stopped.  Pierpont’s action became an issue in the recently dismissed criminal court cases.
Jim’s proposal, along with another requesting that Board meeting minutes be posted within five days of a Board meeting, was tabled until the May meeting at the request of Davis who said he wanted to check the legality of the actions.  Wisconsin statutes do not prohibit the video recording of School Board meetings, and, in fact, protect them as public records once they are recorded.
After a 1-1/2 hour-long closed session, the Board approved a tentative settlement of Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction earlier findings that $175,248 of Community Service Fund 80 had been misspent.  Terms of the settlement will be made public following some revisions.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019


A Courtroom Mystery
JUSTICE: THE IRON COUNTY WAY
In what was a surprising and seemingly predetermined court proceeding, criminal felony charges against the Mercer 5 were dismissed Monday by Iron County Circuit Judge Patrick Madden.  (For details about the charges and the defendants see MSF 4/2/19 The Wheels of Justice Turn Slowly)
Of, course, the defendants must be presumed innocent until proven guilty.  But Judge Madden blocked even making that determination by throwing out the cases on a technicality that the criminal charges were flawed. We will never know if the charges actually were flawed because Judge Madden did not give District Attorney Matthew Tingstad an adequate opportunity to prove otherwise.
Almost at the start of the initial appearances of the Mercer 5 on Monday it appeared that Judge Madden had already made up his mind to dismiss the charges. It was supposed to be initial appearances at which the defendants are read the charges and bonds are set. 
Instead, Madden moved right into hearing the motions to dismiss which were filed only last Tuesday through Thursday by the defendants’ attorneys.   Judge Madden could do this, but in disregarding the timing he blindsided District Attorney Matthew Tingstad.
Tingstad went to court Monday morning expecting only initial appearance proceedings.  Judge Madden probably knew – or should have known -- that the one to three working days Tingstad had since receiving the motions to dismiss was not adequate time to prepare a response. Under the law, Tingstad should have been allowed sufficient time to respond to the motions,
As further evidence that Judge Madden made his decisions before entering the courtroom Monday morning, he had not even seen the letter on which he based his dismissals.  The district attorney gave him a copy during the first motion hearing.  Judge Madden took about 1-1/2 minutes to read it and then quickly decided that signatures under the heading “Mercer Board of Education” did not matter.
But probably the most befuddling of all in the Monday courtroom scene was Judge Madden’s dismissal of a charge against Deanna Pierpont.  She had been charged with destroying the video recording of the May 2017 Mercer School District annual meeting at which one school board member shouted an obscenity and another charged at a person speaking. 
Apparently willing to ignore a Wisconsin statute, Judge Madden errored in ruling that since the school was not legally required to record board meetings there was no requirement that the video had to be preserved.   However, Wisconsin Statute 19.31(2) clearly states that video recordings are public records and that once they are made they must be preserved.
In another strange maneuver, Madden dismissed charges against Micki Pierce Holmstrom on his basis of the other dismissals, even though her attorney had filed a motion asking only for “Demand for Discovery and Inspection”.
Tingstad can appeal Judge Madden’s decisions and Mercer residents can file complaints about his questionable actions with the Wisconsin Judicial Commission. (www.wicourts.gov/judcom)
So, in making his hasty Monday morning decisions was Judge Madden only eager to dispose of what could be a series of long drawn out legal proceedings, or were there other motives?

Saturday, April 20, 2019


The “Mercer 5” Criminal Felony Charges
THE WHEELS OF JUSTICE TURN SLOWLY
The first step in what could be a very long drawn out legal process will

be taken at 10:30 a.m. Monday when the two present and three former Mercer School Board members charged with criminal felony counts appear before Circuit Court Judge Patrick Madden in the Iron County Courthouse.
The five – Micki Pierce-Holmstrom, owner of Century 21 Pierce Reality in Mercer, Noel Brandt, Deanna Pierpont, Kelly Kohegyi and Denise Thompson, owner Tom’s Café in Mercer – will be in court for an “initial appearance”.  All that can happen at an initial appearance is that the charges will be read to each defendant and bonds will be set.
All five have retained legal counsel. As lawyers do, they have filed a series of motions just this last Wednesday and Thursday.  Those motions will be heard at future court sessions, as will the defendants’ pleas of guilty or not guilty be taken.
Micki Pierce’s attorney, who is from Eagle River, filed a three- page, 21-point “Demand for Discovery and Inspection” motion.  He has asked for the names and information about the potential witnesses District Attorney Matthew Tingstad intends to use and for numerous case documents.
Noel Brandt’s attorney from Madison submitted a nine-page “Motion to Dismiss” the charges, as did an attorney from Bessemer representing Deanna Pierpont, Kelly Kohegyi and Denise Thompson.  In those cases, the issue involves a May 1, 2018, letter to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction signed by the five School Board members. 
The problem is, and the state charges, that two of the five, Kohegyi and Thompson, were not members of the Board at that time of the signing, and the other three signed the letter knowing that. The basis of the motions to dismiss is that they were really signing and attesting to something that had occurred at a 2015 Board meeting when all five were Board members.  (See MSF 4/8/19 Details of the Charges)
Pierpont is additionally charged with a criminal felony count for destroying a video recording of the October 2017 School District annual meeting.  Her attorney’s motion to dismiss says: “the video alleged to have been destroyed by the defendant was a private video, property of the defendant.” 
However, a list on the school’s website of “Board Meeting Videos” going back several years reads: “We are now taping the School Board meetings.”  Note that it reads “We” not “I’.  Also, the recordings were done on school equipment.  
If Pierpont had not destroyed the video it would show Pierce shouting an obscenity and Brandt charging at a citizen who was speaking about the school’s “pathetic” ACT scores.  Pierpont told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she erased video recording because: “I didn’t like what I saw…I just felt that I didn’t want that out on the website”.  Audio recordings of the meeting exists.
 
Stay tuned for many interesting days ahead.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019


From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

CHARGES AGAINST “MERCER FIVE” GOES NATIONAL

Annysa Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has done it again with an excellent job of reporting, this time about the criminal felony charges against the five present and former Mercer School Board members.  The Journal Sentinel is a part of the Gannett Media Group which published USA Today and owns numerous other major national print and broadcast operations.  Articles in the Journal Sentinel are frequently used by the Gannett sister media outlets.  Following is the Journal Sentinel news story.

Latest turmoil for tiny Northwoods district: Felony charges filed against 5 current and former school board members

Annysa Johnson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Published 10:24 a.m. CT April 17, 2019 | Updated 10:39 a.m. CT April 17, 2019
 


 

Five current and former board members of a tiny Northwoods school district are facing felony charges for allegedly falsifying a letter to the state Department of Public Instruction and, in one case, destroying a video of a heated board meeting.

The charges are the latest development for the Mercer School District, which drew national attention in 2016 after two of its girls volleyball coaches — one is among those charged — allowed some players to watch the sexploitation flick "50 Shades of Grey" en route to a tournament.

The charges stem from an investigation by DPI in response to a complaint by board member Christa Reinert, an angry-volleyball-parent-turned-whistleblower who ran for office in part because of the "50 Shades" debacle.





The charges, filed in Iron County Circuit Court, accuse board members Deanna Pierpont, Michele Holmstrom and Noel Brandt of misconduct in office; and former members Denise Thompson and Colleen "Kelly" Kohegyi of falsely exercising a function of public office.



The five signed a May 1, 2018, letter to DPI detailing how they voted in closed session to give $18,000 in bonuses to District Administrator Erik Torkelson and three others, without acknowledging the votes in any minutes. All five identified themselves as board members, though two had lost their seats the month before.
 
Pierpont faces a second charge of misconduct for allegedly deleting a video recording of a heated school board meeting in October 2017. In an interview months later, Pierpont told the Journal Sentinel that she had erased it and that Mercer no longer records its meetings.

"I didn't like what I saw. ... People in the audience were yelling. Students were there. ... I just felt that I didn't want that out on the website," she said at the time.

Efforts to reach the five were not immediately successful.

Last summer, DPI issued a finding that the Mercer School District inappropriately spent about $175,000 from its community programs and services account — otherwise known as "Fund 80" — over the 2015-'16 and 2016-'17 school years. Most of that was used to boost wages and benefits for a small group of employees, including Torkelson, who is also Kohegyi's son-in-law, without adequate documentation, according to the letter.

DPI also admonished board members for voting on bonuses in closed session. State law allows votes in closed session, but only in limited cases, and the state Department of Justice advises elected bodies not to do so, unless "doing so would compromise the need for the closed session."

Mercer challenged DPI's findings, and Torkelson said Tuesday that the two sides are in mediation to resolve the dispute.

Reinert, who has taken on the role of board watchdog, lost her seat April 2 but said she will continue to push for transparency and accountability in the Mercer schools. She said she recently delivered a new cache of documents to the Iron County District Attorney's Office.

Contact Annysa Johnson at anjohnson@jrn.com or 414-224-2061. Follow her on Twitter at @JSEdbeat. And join the Journal Sentinel conversation about education issues at www.facebook.com/groups/WisconsinEducation.