Contract $98,000; Benefits $15,000
2nd highest paid of state's 424 admin.
Wis. DPI Supt comp. $121,307
Cost per student Mercer $25,281;
Wis. $12,942; Nation $10,667
Mercer ACT & School Report Card
scores lowest of 21 N. Wis. schools

Thursday, September 20, 2018

What’s This All About?


In the massive news media reporting of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction findings that Mercer school district administrator Erik Torkelson misused $175,000 of taxpayer Fund 80 money, an interesting part of the reporting seemed to get lost.  Here is what just one media outlet, KBJR6 TV in Rhinelander, reported at the time:

“KBJR6 has learned there could be an issue with (Mercer) test scores.

A Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spokesperson said they are looking into allegations of test administration and scoring issues.

This comes after the Wisconsin DPI found 12 instances of misappropriation of funds within the district, totaling $175,000.

DPI Spokespeople say the investigation into test scores is ongoing, and they won't be releasing any further information until the investigation is complete.”

Authorities throughout the nation are taking a very dim view of school administrator and teacher cheating in the administration of ACT, SAT and other widely-used tests because it results in a misrepresentation of the students’ and schools’ capabilities.  In many cases it is being treated as a crime.

In Atlanta, Georgia, eight educators were convicted of conspiracy to boost students' test scores and received stiff sentences in a school-cheating scandal. Three top administrators were sentenced to seven years in prison, with 13 years of probation.  Five lower-ranking educators received one- to two-year prison terms.

A state investigation found that educators gave answers to students or erased and changed answers on tests after they were turned in. Teachers who tried to report it were threatened with retaliation. Investigators accused administrators of creating a "culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation."

Caveon , a company that owns a testing system, found suspicious irregularities in the standardized tests taken in the Washington, D.C., public school system over a few years. Investigators have launched a probe following suggestions that there was widespread cheating in the district during the tenure of a former chancellor.

Not only can criminal penalties be involved, but the companies which own the tests have denied schools the right to use them if abuses are found.  This can cause a problem for students trying to enter colleges which require these test scores for admission.

The reasons for the harsh treatment of test administration and scoring abuses are that it gives students a false sense of their abilities and it may make it difficult for them once in college because they may have been rated as having better than actual subject skills. This could also result in lost tuition as students may have to retake courses they failed due to improper placement.

The true test results are also important because major companies look at such test results in considering people for employment.  The military is also interested in them or administers its own tests before accepting enlistees.

The real crime is the students’ false sense of accomplishment.  They will only find out their true ability or how their schools failed them when they attend college, attempt to enter the military or go on with their lives.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Will Pierpont Ever Learn?


How do you respond to something so ridiculous that it does not deserve a response?  That is what Deanna Pierpont expected Mercer school board member Christa Reinert to do when she asked Christa to comment on the performance appraisal of administrator Erik Torkelson.

Pierpont, who was board president when she circulated the performance appraisal to school board members, turned Christa’s completely justified refusal to participate in the charade into another attempt to harass, intimidate and embarrass Christa.

The seven-page appraisal contains some of the most outlandish praise for an administrator who has presided over a deteriorating educational program and the wasteful spending of thousands of Mercer taxpayer dollars -- someone who is probably on his way out.

The irony is that Torkelson wrote his appraisal himself-- something no one has ever heard of being done -- and then his school board lackeys were asked to provide comments and sign a cover letter accompanying the appraisal.   

Attached to the appraisal was Pierpont’s totally out-of-place attack on Christa.  Attaching an unrelated document to an employee’s appraisal is totally inappropriate and clearly demonstrates that Pierpont’s motive was to harass Christa.

Pierpont called Christa a ”rogue board member” who “continuously tries to micromanage the school district.”    Pierpont is confusing “micromanaging” with Christa’s sincere attempt to fulfill her legal fiduciary responsibility as a school board member while protecting the best interest of the students and Mercer taxpayers.

Pierpont also charged that Christa’s attempts to “micromanage” the school district is costing the Mercer School District thousands of dollars in resources – time and money.”  All Christa has been attempting to do is to obtain readily available information she has been denied but to which she is legally entitled in order to perform her responsibilities as a school board member.

While falsely charging that Christa is costing the district thousands of dollars, Pierpont made no mention of the thousands of dollars in pay and benefits she and Torkelson’s mother-in-law, Kelly Kohegyi, allowed Torkelson to take home every year which far exceeded his contractual amount.  Nor did Pierpont mention the many other thousands of taxpayer dollars --- $1.6 million of Community Services Fund 80 money alone – which have not been fully accounted for.  In an ongoing investigation, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has already found that Torkelson diverted $145,916 from the school’s Fund 80 account into his pocket and the pockets of a few select staff members.  (See MSF 6/30/18 Torkelson’s Taxpayer Ripoff Draws Fire)

In the appraisal, Torkelson took credit for 88 achievements, practically all too ridiculous to mention.  For example, he credited himself for Mercer test scores that “have steadily improved”.  Since when does steady improvement mean being at the very bottom of the list of all 21 northern Wisconsin school districts with Mercer’s ACT and DPI school report card scores?

He also credited himself with doing “a great job on the ($650,000 school tax increase) referendum.”  Was it “a great job” by lying to Mercer taxpayers and telling them taxes would go up a mere $11 per $100,000 when he knew they would skyrocket by about $137 per $100,000?

Pierpont has been known to consistently use extremely poor judgment in her unwavering support for the failed administrator.   Her attack on Christa is just another reasons why she should be voted off the board in next spring’s election.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Another Open Meetings Violation?


In an attempt to try to cover the mysterious misspending of thousands of Mercer taxpayer dollars, School District Administrator Erik Torkelson submitted 73 meaningless documents to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.  But one document stands out as being the epidemy of flawed judgement.

It was a letter dated May 1, 2018, in which the “Mercer Board of Education” feebly tried to explain two earlier meetings.  “Mercer Board of Education” is in quotes because two of the five signers as board members were not on the board at the time.

The DPI saw through the scheme and pointed out that the May 1 meeting violated the open meetings law because it was never legally posted.  The Iron County district attorney has been asked by several citizens to investigate the matter.

On an earlier occasion, the Mercer school board was found in violation of the open meetings law and was given a harsh warning by the then district attorney never to do it again.  In an earlier incident, Torkelson and the school board were found in violation of the public records law, resulting from a faked hacking scheme, and were ordered to pay a fine and legal fees of $5,000.

Two signers of the May 1 letter, Kelly Kohegyi and Denise Thompson, were booted off the board by voters in elections preceding the May 1, 2018, date.  And two members of the board on that date, Christa Reinert and Karl Anderson, were not advised of the meeting, nor was the public, as is required by law.

In its investigation, the DPI had requested proof that Community Service Fund 80 money had been legally used.  Torkelson submitted the documents without the “real” school board being advised as to what was being submitted, despite requests by Christa and Karl.

On June 5 the DPI discounted almost all the materials submitted and issued 12 findings that there was no documentation supporting the use of $175,248 of taxpayer Fund 80 money in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years.  Most of that amount wrongly went into the pockets of Torkelson and a few select staff member as pay and benefits for duties Torkelson falsely claimed were needed to operate the community services programs. (See MSF 5/30/18 The DPI Investigation and 8/2/18 Another Black Eye)

The DPI is still investigating misuse of Fund 80 money for the 2017-18 school year.  Torkelson has appealed the earlier findings.  But that appeal is likely to go nowhere even if more documents like the phony May 1, 2018, letter are fabricated.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

About a Recall


“It takes a village” …  to rid itself of dysfunctional school board members and an inept administrator. Our apologies for distorting this timeless proverb which was used as a book title by a former First Lady.

But it will take “a village”, the people of Mercer, to remove three Mercer school board members -- Noel Brandt, Denna Pierpont and Micki Pierce-Holstrom – and administrator Erik Torkelson.  The talk around Mercer these days is to remove Torkelson by recalling his three puppet board members. (See MSF 8/10/18 Patience Is Wearing Thin)

Actually, all three do not have to be recalled to get rid of Torkelson.  Getting rid of one will do the job because we already have two conscientious board members – Christa Reinert and Karl Anderson – who are dedicated to restoring honesty and transparency to the board.

Mercer residents began the process of cleaning up the school board mess by earlier overwhelmingly voting off the school board Torkelson’s mother-in-law Kelly Kohegyi and lackey Denise Thompson.

Recalls are not easy matters. The Wisconsin Elections Commission has a 20- page guide – Recall of Local Officials --which outlines the required legal steps.  (

Some people think that a recall election means voting a person out of office.   Actually, that person stands for re-election and must have someone running against them or they are automatically voted back in with no opposition.

A recall committee, with a designated treasurer, must open a bank account to receive and expend funds even if it has no plans to do so. A form covering this action and a Statement of Intent to Circulate a Petition must then be submitted to the school district clerk.  The process of circulating petitions can then begin with the number of signatures required equal to 25% of Mercer voters in the last election for the governor.  After the required number of signatures are obtained, the petitions are then given to the school district clerk who has a number of days to determine the “sufficiency of the petitions”.  This involves determining that all of petition signers were legal Mercer voters, which can result in delays if some signatures are challenged.

The recall election must be called six weeks after a “certificate of sufficiency” is filed.  If more than two people file to run for office, a primary election must first be held before the recall election itself.

As you can see, a recall election is not a simple matter.  It requires a group of volunteer workers, considerable “paper work”, and, most important of all, someone willing to run against the person being recalled.

It will “take a village”, the people of Mercer, to get the job done.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Monday’s School Board Meeting


Mercer residents will get a chance to find out this coming Monday if democracy is dead in Mercer.  By attending the school board meeting beginning at 5 p.m. they will learn if their First Amendment right to free speech continues to be denied.

They were shocked to learn that this basic right had been taken away from them at the July board meeting.  More than 100 citizens went to the meeting expecting to hear what happened to $175,248 of their Community Services Fund 80 money.  A Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction investigation had earlier concluded that no documentation was provided proving how it was used.  (See MSF 8/2/18 Disgusting Debacle and 7/24/18 Scandal Draws National Attention)

Even school board members Christa Reinert and Karl Anderson wanted answers but were denied the right.  In fact, they were threatened not to talk about ANY school affairs.

The order came right from Administrator Erik Torkelson through his number 1 lackey, school board president Noel Brandt.  They tried to place the blame on the school’s attorney, Mary Gerbig.   Everyone knows that no self-respecting attorney, who is sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution, would issue such a gag order.

To assure that his gag order was carried out, Torkelson had two armed deputy sheriffs at the July school board meeting.

Not only had Torkelson removed from the meeting agenda the ever- present time for “public comment”, but he took away “report/information items” and “discussion items” – every chance to find out what happened to the $175,248 of taxpayer money. 

Then, to add insult to injury, Torkelson took away all the chairs in the lunchroom where the more than 100 people, many of them senior citizens, had to stand for two hours while the school board went into closed session.  He apparently had intended that most of them would leave rather than stand and wait out the closed meeting.

Karl Anderson asked that the regular meeting agenda be restored, allowing for the three important missing items.  DENIED!  Christa Reinert asked that answers about the missing funds be provided.  DENIED!

You won’t want to miss the 5 p.m. Monday school board meeting to learn if YOUR First Amendment right to free speech continues to be DENIED!

Friday, August 10, 2018

Patience Is Wearing Thin


A “revolution”, of sorts, seems to be in the making in Mercer.  This one, without firearms, is for the removal of one or all three of the Mercer school board members and the firing of the district administrator.  The three board members continue to blindly follow the commands of Administrator Erik Torkelson whose mismanagement has deprived Mercer’s school children of the education they deserve and who misspends taxpayer dollars.

Mercer School Facts has received a multitude of blog comments calling for a recall election.  Most are not published because of repetitiveness.  Even a new Facebook blogsite is overwhelmed with similar pleas.

The composition of the school board presently consists of three members – Noel Brandt, Deanna Pierpont and Micki Pierce-Holstrom – who follow Torkelson’s every misguided command.  The other two members of the board – Christa Reinert and Karl Anderson – were overwhelmingly elected to the board on promises that they would work to restore honesty and transparency and to stop the mismanagement and misspending.  Their attempts have been rebuffed  with harassment and intimidation and even threats.

Based upon comments to this blogsite and in the community, Mercer residents are calling for a recall election and seem impatient about waiting until next spring’s election.  Dennna Pierpont is up for reelection in the spring election and is certain to go down as Torkelson lackeys Kelly Kohegyi and Denise Thompson did in earlier elections.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a ground swell movement for the recall of Micki Pierce-Holstrom.  Many are finding it difficult to accept that Pierce, who as a realtor handles property transactions involving thousands of clients’ dollars, could so miserably and irresponsibly manage the school’s finances.  She was school board treasurer when most of the $200,000 a year of Fund 80 money was mysterious misspent. 

A Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction investigation found that $175,248 of taxpayer Fund 80 money had been misused in the school years 2015-16 and 2016-17, and it continues to investigate other years.  The DPI determined that $145,916 of that amount wrongly went into the pockets of Torkelson and select staff members for duties Torkelson falsely claimed were needed to operate the community services programs.

Now, as school board clerk, Pierce-Holstrom refused to call a special board meeting to discuss the DPI findings, an action required by law when requested by another board member.  Then too, many feel that Pierce-Holstrom’s outburst at the board meeting where she shouted out obscenities, does not set a good example for Mercer’s children and is not befitting conduct for a school board member.

Crandon, Wisconsin, has had outstanding successes with recalling errant school board members.  Until recently it had a situation like Mercer: an administrator who controlled the school board and a dismal management and educational record.  A group of concerned citizens successfully led the recall of one school board member, another resigned under fire and there are now enough signatures for the recall of a third school board member.  The administrator is on administrative leave while the sheriff and district attorney investigate unspecified charges.

Whether Mercer has a recall election or waits until the spring election, there is the critical need for a group of Mercer citizens to step up and lead the reformation, as was done in Crandon.   Some Mercer School Facts blog commenters have suggested that MSF lead the campaign to remove the school board members and Torkelson.  MSF is intended only as an informational and   communication tool.  Although contributors to MSF would most likely be eager to work on a recall, it is not staffed or organized for that purpose.  

So those clamoring for a change in the board and the firing of Torkelson need to get their act together and take action.  It’s not enough simply to talk about change – YOU have to be willing to do something to create change.   

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Another Black Eye


Print and broadcast news media across the nation have focused on Mercer as a  “tiny northwoods school district” with a major “mismanagement and misspending problem”.

The unfavorable but fully justified attention began with a page one exposé in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel which documented Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction charges that Mercer school district administrator Erik Torkelson misspent taxpayer-funded Community Services Fund 80 money.   (See MSF 7/11/18 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Slams Torkelson) The state’s largest newspaper is  part of the USA Network, which resulted in the news article being passed on to 500 other television, radio and newspaper outlets, many of which used the story.

Regional news media then did their own research of the charges and published and broadcasted major news stories.

Many Mercer residents have commented that they didn’t see some of the regional news coverage.  Therefore, following is the coverage given by regional media outlets which did excellent jobs in reporting the DPI findings and subsequent related actions.

                                                          *     *     *

WJFW -- Rhinelander
Rose McBride

DPI finds Mercer School District misused $175,000

MERCER - Two Mercer School Board members, Karl Anderson and Christa Reinert, are facing backlash for questioning finances of the district and the behavior of some of its leaders.

"I get [an] upset stomach thinking about the things that are going on," said Anderson.

Anderson was elected to the five-person board this spring. He ran to support fellow school board member Christa Reinert and to try to correct some of the wrongs he saw happening in the district.

"Some of the facts that have been coming out seem to be waking people up," said Anderson.

Those facts are misuse of taxpayer money, improper raises, and intimidation techniques, which were observed during this interview when a man in a car drove by yelling profanities.

Recent findings by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction show that over the course of the last two years, about $175,000 out of Fund 80 were misused.

Fund 80 is a fund of taxpayer dollars used for community programs at the school.

Instead, the money was used for unapproved payroll increases, and upgrades to the school that didn't benefit the community.

"[It's] very manipulative in a lot of ways, which is very disturbing," said Reinert.

The District Administrator, Erik Torkelson, and Board President, Noel Brandt, issued a statement on the findings saying there were no inappropriate expenditures, which they plan to appeal. The full statement can be found at the bottom of this story.

This isn't the first problem Reinert has seen during her two years on the school board. She said she has been left out of email chains and bullied during school board meetings - all for asking questions on behalf of the students and taxpayers.

"[They say] if you question anything that's going on you're not 'in' with the school, and that's not true," said Reinert.

Reinert says the other three members of the schoolboard support Torkleson, one of the people who benefitted from the unapproved pay raises.

"They're elected officials and I feel like they need to step back from the personal part of all this and do what they're asked to do," said Reinert.

Despite backlash, both Reinert and Anderson were both overwhelming voted into their positions. They have recently seen some support for their efforts.

But many of those people are too afraid to show that support publicly, which is why Reinert and Anderson keep on fighting.

Contact information for the three other board members is not listed publically, and calls to the district seeking that information went unreturned this week.

Anderson called a special school board meeting to discuss the DPI findings, but that meeting has not happened and shows no signs of happening soon. There is a monthly school board meeting on Monday,July 23, but any mention of the findings is left off the agenda.

The full statement from Torkelson and Brandt reads:

We are in the process of discussing the disagreement between the DPI's review and our auditing firm, Eagle Auditing of Park Falls, WI. We have made progress and are confident in a resolution. The DPI's letter clearly states that this is an accounting issue. There were no inappropriate expenditures. It is a simple matter of which fund, 80 or 10, should they have been levied to. There are many lies and conspiracy theories being circulated that are part of the agenda of a small group who have openly campaigned to close our great school. Mercer is a great town filled with many great community members, families and children. Mercer School is filled with talented staff as well as dedicated and respectful students. It is my sincere hope that the Mercer community, as they have done so many times, rallies around their great town and school and silences those who do not believe in the School and town of Mercer.

*    *     *


State agency: Mercer school district misappropriated $175,000 dollars

By Anthony Matt, Reporter

MERCER, WI - A big problem has come to light for the City of Mercer and their school district. 

"There was just a question of who was getting extra money, and how it was being done without board approval," said school board member Christa Reinert. 

Reinert is a two-year member of the Mercer School board. She says the school has something called "Fund 80" - a designated fund, of taxpayer dollars, used to implement community programs at the school. 

Reinert says after noticing a few things were awry with the school's finances, she claimed money from Fund 80 was being misappropriated over the course of the 2015-16 and 2016-17 years. 

"There were inflated numbers based on just doing simple math on the percentages," she said. 

Reinert claims she brought the matter to the attention of other board members, and the district administrator, Erik Torkelson, but they, according to Reinert, did not adequately address it. 

An audit report from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction shows misappropriation of $175,000. Those misappropriated funds were used for unapproved payroll increases, and upgrades to the school that was outside of the Fund 80 guidelines, according to the report. 

"There were things in the District's paperwork that were not complete in terms of information needed to prove that they were using the fund source appropriately," said DPI spokesperson Tom McCarthy. 

Reinert says the Fund 80 dollars swelled over the years, growing from about $3,000 a year to roughly $200,000 on average over the last seven years.

Portions of the fund were used for raises and bonuses for Torkelson, and others, according to the DPI Report. 

Reinert said the school board never approved the increases, something that is required. 

"At the time, the school itself was recording [meetings] on video and providing it on our website for everyone to see. So, it was verified that there was not an open session vote at all on several of the administrative bonuses if you will," said Reinert. 

Reinert's counterpart on the board, Karl Anderson, says he tried to meet with Torkleson to address the discrepancies but claims that meeting never happened, despite a state statute that says his request should have been granted.

"It seems to me the administrator is the one who led us to the point that we're at, and we need to understand as a board and take control of this," said Anderson. 

In all, the DPI audit showed 12 instances of misappropriation, findings the district plans to appeal. 

The DPI has issued a "revenue limit adjustment", meaning the Mercer board will have to cut spending or dip into their reserves to balance the 2018-'19 budget to make up for the misappropriation

The state says a second blow could follow if the district doesn't change their practices for the upcoming year.

Meanwhile, Mercer School District leaders are responding to the report. Here is the formal statement. 

"We are in the process of discussing the disagreement between the DPI's review and our auditing firm, Eagle Auditing of Park Falls, WI. We have made progress and are confident in a resolution. The DPI's letter clearly states that this is an accounting issue. There were no inappropriate expenditures. It is a simple matter of which fund, 80 or 10, should they have been levied to. There are many lies and conspiracy theories being circulated that are part of the agenda of a small group who have openly campaigned to close our great school. Mercer is a great town filled with many great community members, families and children. Mercer School is filled with talented staff as well as dedicated and respectful students. It is my sincere hope that the Mercer community, as they have done so many times, rallies around their great town and school and silences those who do not believe in the School and town of Mercer."-E. Torkelson

*      *        *


Mercer school district being investigated for test administration and scoring issues

An update to a story we brought you earlier this week regarding the Mercer School District.

KBJR6 has learned there could be an issue with test scores.

A Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spokesperson said they are looking into allegations of test administration and scoring issues.

This comes after the Wisconsin DPI found 12 instances of misappropriation of funds within the district, totaling $175,000.

District officials have refuted the misappropriation findings, calling it an accounting error, and plan to appeal the findings.

DPI Spokespeople say the investigation into test scores is ongoing, and they won't be releasing any further information until the investigation is complete. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Torkelson’s Attempt to Survive


Disgusting, un-American, bizarre, alarming, depressing, beyond belief.  These were just some of the terms used to describe Monday night’s Mercer School Board meeting by many of the more than 100 citizens who jammed the school’s library/meeting room expecting to hear how Administrator Erik Torkelson managed to misuse thousands of their school tax dollars.

Instead, they were dumb-founded by a well-rehearsed spectacle staged by Torkelson and his three stooge school board members -- Noel Brandt, Deanna Pierpont and Micki Pierce Holstrom.  Like well-trained puppies, the three followed every one of Torkelson’s pre-scripted commands.  It was obvious that that they had held one of their infamous, illegal closed-door sessions to receive Torkelson’s orders and rehearse their roles.

School board members Christa Reinert and Karl Anderson, who were  overwhelmingly elected to the school board by Mercer voters to clean up the school’s administrative mess, tried valiantly and in vain to open a dialogue and get the answers the Mercer citizens had come to hear.  They were shut down by Brandt in every attempt, with Brandt ignoring or talking over them.  Brandt purposely mumbled into his microphone so that the crowd would be unable to hear his feeble attempts to deny them the information they sought.

Everyone should have expected that Torkelson would stymie any possible discussion of the misappropriation of funds charged by the Wisconsin Department of Education.  He stripped down the meeting’s agenda, eliminating the ever- present “public comment, report/information items (which would include correspondence like the DPI charges) and discussion items”.

The public meeting itself lasted only 15 minutes.  The board then went into closed session to “confer with legal counsel regarding a matter which may result  in litigation involving the District (Fund 80 Issues)”.

The more than 100 citizens had to leave for the closed session and wait in the adjoining lunchroom.  All chairs and other seating ln the lunchroom had been deliberately removed so that the people, including many senior citizens, would have to stand or be encouraged to leave.

Many waited out the two-hour-long closed session only to hear that no action was taken.

Many attendees privately questioned how Brandt, Pierpont and Pierce had been compromised to the point that they would completely ignore the misspending of tax dollars and the poor education the students are receiving under Torkelson.  The Mercer school ranks at the very bottom of the list of all 21 northern Wisconsin schools with its ACT and DPI School Report Card scores.

Even the school’s attorney seemed to behave like one of Torkelson’s well-trained puppies.  When someone asked the attorney for her name she replied “Mary.” The conversation then went like this:

“And your last name?”

“I’m not authorized to give you that,” said Mary.

“Well, what’s the name of your law firm?”

“I’m not authorized to give you that,” Mary replied.

For the record, her name is Mary Gerbig and she is with the law firm of Davis and Kuelthau in Green Bay.  Torkelson fired the last school attorney because the firm would not give him the advice he wanted to hear, and he hired the new one.  Although the school board is the client, Torkelson is using the Davis and Kuelthau law firm as his own private counsel, without board approval.

And who is paying the bill?  You are, Mr. and Mrs. Mercer Taxpayer.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Acts of Desperation


The misuse of school tax dollars, another open meeting violation and an investigation into test administration and scoring, have been added to the woes of Mercer School District Administrator Erik Torkelson and the school board.  State and regional news media – print and broadcast -- are having a heyday with the scandal.

The wrongdoings are expected to draw a crowd to this coming Monday night’s school board meeting.  (The meeting will begin at 5 p.m. at the Mercer school.)  Many Mercer residents are demanding that Torkelson be fired and that his three misguided school board supporters-- Noel Brandt, Deanna Pierpont and Micki Pierce-Holstrom -- either resign or face recall elections.

The suspected misuse of Community Services Fund 80 monies has been going on for several years, with thousands of taxpayer dollars wrongly channeled into the pockets of Torkelson and several of his chosen staff members.  The abuses gained widespread attention when on June 26 the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction issued a blistering six-page report of misuse of $175,248 of taxpayer-funded Fund 80 money.  That may just be the tip of the iceberg because the misuse of Fund 80 is being further investigated by the DPI, along with the school’s test administration and scoring. 

Torkelson tried to downplay the magnitude of the DPI findings by issuing a statement to the news media which falsely claimed that “the DPI letter clearly states that this is an accounting issue.”  However, nowhere in the DPI’s document does it ever mention the misappropriation of the funds as “an accounting issue.”

In fact, the DPI charges say exactly the opposite.    The DPI ruled that $145,916 which Torkelson doled out from Fund 80 to himself and his selected staff members in the form of bonuses, salaries and benefits were not “actual, additional costs to operate community programs and services”.  Another $29,532, which Torkelson used to pay for new school flooring, fitness equipment and a tractor, were “not actual, additional costs to operate the community programs and services”.

In an act of desperation, Torkelson went a step further with a baffling statement to the news media.  He lashed out at what he said were “many lies and conspiracy theories being circulated… by a small group who have openly campaigned to close the Mercer school.” 

Here, again, Torkelson strayed far from the truth.  He, Torkelson, is the only person to say anything about closing the school, and he says it to panic Mercer residents.  The “small group” actually consists of hundreds of Mercer voters who kicked his mother-in-law and another stalwart supporter off the school board, and that group has “openly campaigned” to “save our school”.

The only way Mercer taxpayers will get this done is by getting rid of Torkelson and his three remaining lackey school board members.

In his news statement, Torkelson also called on the Mercer community to silence his critics. That’s scary.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018


Reports on Years of Mismanagement, Misspending
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has done it again – this time reporting on Mercer School District Administrator Erik Torkelson’s “inappropriate” spending of taxpayer dollars and the history of other questionable management practices.  Widely acclaimed Journal Sentinel educational writer Annysa Johnson did another masterful job in researching and writing the expose.
 In this recent article she referenced an earlier page-one story she authored when Kelly Kohegyi showed the sexually explicit movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” to a group of young Mercer school girls.  That incident gave Mercer a big black eye when the story went viral and was used by broadcast and print media around the world.   
This latest article will most likely receive similar widespread notoriety because the Journal Sentinel is a member of the Gannett Co. family of hundreds of broadcast and print media outlets, including USA Today.  As a Pulitzer Prize- winning newspaper, the Journal Sentinel does not print articles without thorough researching, fact checking and top professional writing.  So, we can rest assured that Annysa’s article is 100% correct.
Read the following text of the page one Wednesday, July 11, Journal Sentinel article.
Tensions boil in tiny Northwoods district

New board member digs up spending discrepancy 

Annysa Johnson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel USA TODAY NETWORK – WISCONSIN 

One way to make enemies in a smalltown school district, it turns out, is to start sniffing around its finances. 

Christa Reinert was hardly welcomed when she joined the Mercer School Board in 2016. She’d run, at least partly, in protest after two girls basketball coaches — one a sitting School Board member at the time — allowed players to watch the sexploitation flick “Fifty Shades of Grey” on a road trip. 

But things got worse, she says, when she started asking questions: Why, for example, were board members approving staff contracts they’d never seen? 

Why was the district administrator’s salary higher than his contract stipulated? 

And why had the community recreation fund in this tiny Northwoods district — with 151 students in a single K-12 school — ballooned in the years after the administrator’s arrival from about $3,000 a year to more than $200,000 on average over the last seven years. 

District Administrator Erik Torkelson and School Board members — one of them his mother-in-law — were openly hostile, she said. Torkelson directed his staff to stop providing her documents without an open records request and payment upfront.
So Reinert took her concerns to the state Department of Public Instruction. 

DPI issued a finding late last month 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, without adequate documentation, according to the letter. 

DPI also admonished board members for voting on bonuses for administrators, including $11,000 for Torkelson, in closed session. 

As a result, the department has issued a “revenue limit adjustment” for an equal amount, meaning the Mercer board will have to slash spending or tap its reserves to balance its 2018-’19 budget. And a second hit could follow if it doesn’t change its practices for the coming school year, according to the state. 

“They still have time to demonstrate ... that their funds were spent properly. But they did not provide that (documentation) to us,” DPI spokesman Thomas McCarthy said.

Torkelson and board President Noel Brandt have declined repeated requests for interviews over the last week. But Torkelson said in an email to the Journal Sentinel that he and the district’s attorneys “vehemently disagree” with the agency’s findings and will be filing an appeal.

Reinert said she takes no satisfaction in the ruling.

“At this point, it’s going to hurt the kids in the school,” said Reinert, who owns Flambeau Flowage Sports and the adjacent Looney Beans Coffee shops on Highway 51, the main drag through this Iron County town of about 1,400.

“They’re blaming this on me,” she said of Torkelson and his supporters on the board. “But I didn’t take the money. I didn’t pay people over contract. I didn’t approve any of that,” she said. “I was the one questioning it over the last two years, because it sounded exorbitant to me.”

The DPI probe focused on how the tiny school district spent its Fund 80 dollars for recreation including pickleball and community programming over the two years. Torkelson said in a January interview that the district offers a broad array of programming — child care, senior meals, yoga, art and music classes — that have “transformed the culture of our district.”

Critics dismiss it as a handful of sparsely attended classes and a “walking track” through the halls of the school.

The DPI ruling is the latest turn in an ongoing community squabble that appears to have begun with a controversial school referendum in 2013.

Mercer is considered a property-rich school district, one of a number of districts in resort communities around the state where high-end vacation homes skew the property values, effectively reducing their access to state dollars.

Most of its $3.5 million annual budget comes from local taxpayers, who can be sensitive to spikes in their property tax bills. And many revolted when a 2013 referendum, which was expected to raise taxes by $11 per $100,000 in home value, came in at more than 10 times that amount. Since then, a small group of residents has been raising concerns about the school district at meetings and online.

Complaints have run the gamut, from grade inflation and declining ACT scores to Torkelson’s relationship with the School Board and its financial operations.

Of keen interest has been Torkelson’s compensation. Torkelson was paid about $136,000 last year, though his contract was for about $98,000, according to his critics. He said he effectively buys back some of his benefits, including insurance and unused vacation days, but Reinert and others say that should total no more than $114,000.

And things could get heated. In 2014, a local blogger, Richard Thiede, sued the district for suggesting he was tied to a supposed hacking of the district’s email system. Reinert was slapped with a restraining order over the “Fifty Shades” fracas. Late last year, the board voted to consider legal action against anyone, including Reinert, who forwarded an email letter critical of the district.

“People have been intimidated, and there’s been outright vandalism of people critical of the School Board. Metal shards have been put in tires; I had it happen twice,” said Richard Kemplin, a local activist and Reinert ally who records board meetings.

When board critic Paul Juske ran against Kelly Kohegyi, Torkelson’s mother-in-law, vandals “smashed his mailbox, stole his campaign signs, sent out an illegal flyer,” Kemplin said. “The GAB found it violated election laws, but we couldn’t get the DA to prosecute.”

Tensions boiled over at the October 2017 annual meeting when resident Rick Duley tried to discuss what he called the district’s “pathetic” ACT scores. Shouting ensued. Brandt rose from his seat to confront him, and they were separated by Iron County sheriff’s deputies, who’d been called by Torkelson earlier because another resident was “becoming agitated.”

No charges were filed; Iron County District Attorney Matthew Tingstad said nothing in the deputies’ reports rose to the level of a crime.

Reinert and Duley, as well as one of the deputies, tried to obtain the district’s video of the meeting, but were not successful.

Months later, then-President Deanna 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.”

Reinert was stunned when she heard, but not entirely surprised.

“Unbelievable. I was afraid they were going to do that,” Reinert said. “It’s illegal. You can’t just get rid of documentation of a public meeting.”

Reinert won’t say she feels vindicated by the DPI letter. But she does think it explains why she wasn’t welcomed by her colleagues on the board.

“They didn’t just dislike me. I got along with everyone at the school until the ‘Fifty Shades,’ ” she said. “They didn’t want me on the board ... because I wasn’t complacent. I wasn’t going to go along with the status quo.”