Contract $98,000; Benefits $30,000
Wis. DPI Supt. comp. $121,307
Cost per student Mercer $20,146,
Wis. $12,942, Nation $10,667
ACT comp. score Mercer 17.0,
Wis. 19.6, Lakeland UHS 20.0,
Hurley 18.7; perfect score 36.0
Mercer DPI Report Card score
lowest of all 422 Wis. schools

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Mercer’s New School Report Card Score

Two years ago, an astute Mercer citizen was verbally – and physically – attacked for calling the school district’s dismal ACT scores “pathetic”.  What would happen to him now if he appropriately classified the just-announced 2018-19 Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction School Card score for Mercer as “TRAGIC”?  But that’s what it is.

For the third consecutive year the Mercer School District’s Report Card score hit rock bottom. And for the most recent 2018-19 school year the Mercer School District stands all alone at the VERY BOTTOM of the state’s 421 school districts with a score of 50.4 -- fails to meet expectations.  No other school district is listed in the last place category of fails to meet expectations. 

If this isn’t bad enough, the Mercer School District had scores of 55.9 and 61.9 – meets few expectations – for 2017-18 and 2016-17, also placing it at the bottom of all state school districts.

These three years of tragic scores happened during what should be the last of Administrator Erik Torkelson’s reign of mismanagement.  He was placed on medical leave after experiencing a stroke last June.

Of course, Mercer’s scores for the last three years also positioned it in very last place of all 21 northern Wisconsin school districts.

The DPI School Report Card scoring system is not without controversy.  At the last Mercer School Board meeting board member Jim Hannemann said that there had been considerable discussion at the last two CESA meetings concerning the DPI’s School Report cards.  He said that CESA members are not happy with the process. Hannemann is Mercer’s representation to CESA, an organization that provides services for school districts.

According to Hannemann, there is the beginning of a “groundswell” to come up with a more meaningful and more appropriate evaluation for smaller, rural schools that could be used in evaluating performance.  He said that present methods are designed for Milwaukee and Madison schools.   

However, the criteria for the School Report Cards is mandated by the state legislature and any changes would require state government action.

Hannemann and the other new school board members and the new interim administrator, Sheri Kopka, have an opportunity to only go upward and build a quality educational system.   Are they up to the task?

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.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019


The DPI Investigation

A second Mercer teacher has ended up without her teaching license in the aftermath of a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction investigation into “test administration and scoring”. 

The DPI website containing teacher licensing information listed the “License Status” for Irene Deborah Rice as “Voluntary Surrender as of 10/29/19”.  An earlier listing for Rice on the website showed her “License Status” as “Under Investigation”.

The only known investigation by the DPI was for Mercer’s “test administration and scoring”.  The DPI had announced to the news media on several occasions that it was conducting the investigation.  The DPI also acknowledged the investigation in responses to citizen requests for public records. 

Rice retired as a Mercer teacher while the DPI investigation was ongoing. 

Earlier, Mercer teacher Deborah Hohner surrendered her license after the DPI said she was “under investigation”.  She submitted her resignation from the Mercer teaching staff.

But the DPI investigation may not be over.  The original complaints allegedly identified others who may have been involved. 

Mercer School Board President Bob Davis acknowledged the DPI investigation into “testing improprieties” at the school district’s October 28 annual meeting and said that it had a “significant impact on our district”.  He also said that “the district itself is still in the process of finalizing results of its own investigation…and has already taken actions regarding testing procedures to assure the integrity of the testing of its students and in meeting all compliance requirements”.

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.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The 2019 Annual Meeting
It is rare for Mercer residents to experience a well-run and transparent School District annual meeting.  But that is what happened on October 28 when about 50 citizens attended what in previous sessions were often boisterous and contentious.  This time the meeting was conducted in a business-like manner by Chairperson Bob Davis, who is also school board president.

Voters authorized the school board to set the tax levy rate at $4.82 per $1,000 assessed property valuation for the 2019-20 school year.  This is lower than 2018-19 rate of $5.13.  Projected total revenues of $2,797,753 will fall short of record-high expenditures of $3,831,953.  The shortfall will be unwisely made up in part by using the General Fund 10 balance instead of adopting a more conservative/reduced budget.   (See MSF 10/27/19 Save Our Students)

The way Davis conducted the meeting was a pleasant departure from about a decade of annual meetings when stumbling and bumbling leadership was frustrating.  Take, for instance, the 2017 annual meeting, presided over by Deanna Pierpont, when pandemonium broke out.  School board member Micki Pierce-Holmstrom shouted out obscenities and then board President Noel Brandt in a menacing manner charged at a senior citizen who was trying to make a point about the board needing to do something about the school’s dismal ACT scores.  A deputy sheriff intervened.

Also, at earlier meetings, former Administrator Erik Torkelson and his school board stooges would pack the house with beneficiaries of their patronage system to assure that all votes would go their way.  Last year’s meeting was attended by more than 150 persons, compared with 50 this year.

Davis and interim Administrator Sheri Kopka were able to peacefully maneuver through a lengthy and routine agenda which included a review of the school district’s 2019-20 budget, authorizing the school board to set the tax levy rate and setting school board member salaries.  The board member salary remains unchanged at $2,500 a year.

Most of the votes approving agenda items were unanimous, again a rare departure from the past.   And in a true democratic manner paper ballots were handed out.  Only one had to be used, and that was for voting on the levy rate which passed 43 to 3.  In earlier annual meetings much of the voting was done by a show of hands, with the count often being suspicious.

Mercer residents could easily get use to a sane and responsible school administration and school board.  Let’s hope more is to come.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

“Save Our Students”
Just when Mercer residents were beginning to hope that the new school board and administrator would turn out to be fiscally responsible and begin to stop the waste of their school tax dollars, what happens?  The board and administrator propose a record-high 2019-20 budget.

Under this budget, total school expenditures will rise an alarming 9% to $3,831,953 for 2019-20, compared with an actual 2018-19 spending of $3,518,955.  

And just after settling a $185,465 penalty with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for misusing Community Services Fund 80 that cost taxpayers $161,515 including legal expenses, what does the new school board do?  It raises Fund 80 spending 31% to $192,934 for 2019-20 from $147,774 in 2018-19.

The original 2018-19 Fund 80 budget was reopened and certain expenditures “that did not belong there” were moved out “to stave off a huge potential issue” with the DPI, according to School Board President Bob Davis.  He said that “significant corrections” were made to demonstrate compliance.  The school district faces a DPI audit in December for Fund 80 compliance.  Of course, Mercer residents have known for years that Fund 80 was being misused and that much of the money was used to pad the payrolls of the former administrator and his select pet staff members.  

In the new budget, the school board did propose some encouraging signs toward weaning the school off the wasteful Fund 80 spending.   However, it kept several programs which should be on a fee-for-services basis.  For instance, the proposed budget continues to provide free baby-sitting services for two- and three-year-olds at taxpayer expense. These services should be paid for by the users.  A big mistake is keeping the free meals for anyone, something taxpayers should not be paying.  

All but 3 of the 15 budgetary line items in the proposed 2019-20 budget will be higher.  Administration and school board costs will rise 10%, even though the administrator is gone, and he was paying himself far in excess of what his contract allowed.  Operation and maintenance costs will go up 13%.  

Mercer school taxes may be lower, but it will not be because of wise or conservative budgeting by the school board.  It will be due to an increase in the district’s property valuation and the unwise use of the school’s General Fund  balance.  Just a few years ago, the district’s fund balance was about $1 million.  The school board will go through $295,196 of the General Fund balance to cover the 2019-20 shortfall between expenditures and tax revenues.  It will start the year with $503,107 and end with $206,911. 

The DPI advises that school district’s maintain “appropriate” fund balances" with “an amount sufficient that short term borrowing for cash flow could be avoided and would also allow the district to set aside sufficient assets to realize its longer-range goals." However, Mercer’s could not be considered “appropriate.”

A Mercer School Facts blogsite commenter probably said it better than the blogsite editors could.  Here is what “Save Our Students” had to say about the proposed budget:
If you never used the walking track? Attend the Annual Meeting. (5 p.m. Monday, October 28)
If you have never taken $400 for sitting in the Paw Shop? Attend the Annual Meeting.
If you never had your "free" lunch at the school? Attend the Annual Meeting.
If you never used the school playground? Attend the Annual Meeting.
If you never used the ice hockey rink? Attend the Annual Meeting.
If you never used the School's Forest Trails? Attend the Annual Meeting.
If you never used the school's WI-Fi? Attend the Annual Meeting.
If you never used the school computers? Attend the Annual Meeting.
If you never used the school's weight room? Attend the Annual Meeting.
If you don't think the school employees should get bonuses? Attend the Annual Meeting.
If you don't think the kids are getting the education they deserve and what you are paying for? Attend the Annual Meeting.
If you think that Mercer School is still being mismanaged? Attend the Annual Meeting.
If like me you find all of these things a gross misuse of taxpayer funds, Attend the Annual Meeting.
Attend the Annual Meeting and vote NO to the 2019-2020 Mercer School Budget.



Sunday, October 20, 2019

The 2019-20 School Budget
For many years school districts across the state have been ripping off taxpayers for hundreds of thousands of dollars with a school tax known as Community Services Fund 80.  And Mercer is no different from the rest.

Fund 80 was set up by the State Legislature as a means to finance the use of school facilities by community members.  School districts can charge any taxable amount over and above allowable tax revenue limits for Fund 80 services, and without taxpayer approval.  However, the legislation allows school districts to charge for the use of the services, something Mercer has never done.

None of the Fund 80 money is used for the education of Mercer’s children, and, by law, it cannot be. 

Wisconsin State Senator Frank Lasee must have had the Mercer school district in mind when he said that Fund 80 was an “administrator’s dream and a taxpayer’s nightmare.”  He called school administrators “bad actors who are stealing our tax dollars”.

For the school year ended June 30, 2019, the Mercer school district budgeted $250,000 for Fund 80 Services.  According to the recently released proposed 2019-20 budget $147,774 was actually spent.  The unused monies will make up the difference in the 2019-20 budget.

But now get this, instead of eliminating Fund 80 altogether or at least reducing it significantly, the new school board and new administrator want to waste $227,372 of taxpayer money in 2019-20.

The irony is that all taxpayers pay for the Fund 80 services which are used by but a few people, and even non-residents have been invited in.  Legitimate records of who uses which service are conveniently not kept so there is no way of knowing how many people actually eat the free meals on the taxpayers’ dime, or how few use the school’s workout room, computer lab or walking track.  Believe it or not, thousands of Fund 80 dollars are used to clean the walking track which is the school’s main corridor upon which the students tread every day.  Fund 80 is also used to provide free nursery school care for 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds.

Mercer residents will recall that the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction ruled that former Administrator Erik Torkelson has misused $185,465 of Fund 80 money in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years.  The school district ended up paying $124,515 to settle that claim, plus about another $37,000 in legal fees.  The DPI did not investigate the misuse of Fund 80 in other years or it surely would have found that huge additional amounts of money were misspent.

Before Torkelson was hired in 2011, the school’s Fund 80 yearly budget averaged $3,225.  But he and his school board cronies seized upon the opportunity to supplement his pay and the pay of select staff members using taxpayer Fund 80 money, while at the same time building a patronage system.  The budgeted amount immediately shot up to $257,000 in his first year on the job and it has amounted to about one-quarter of million dollars every year since.

But taxpayers have a way to put an end to this wasteful use of their tax dollars.  They can refuse to approve the proposed budget at the October 28 annual school district meeting.  This would force the school board and administrator to redo the Fund 80 budget and eliminate a lot of the nonsense.  If a service is worth keeping, then charge those people who use it.  For example, keeping nursery care and charging a reasonable fee for that service would make sense.   




Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The 2019-20 School Budget
“We must consult our means rather than our wishes,” said George Washington in discussing the budgetary process more than 200 years ago.

But over the past decade the Mercer School District has given little regard to the “means’ of taxpayers and instead the budgetary process focused solely on the “wishes” of an inane administration and a compliant school board.  As a result, the education of the children suffered, and thousands of taxpayer dollars were wasted.

That can change with the new school board president, four of five new board members and a new administrator.  By now they should have completed the 2019-20 school year budgeting process which should focus on wise and honest spending in order to provide a sadly needed better education for the children.

In the past the wasting of taxpayer dollars has included paying the former administrator far in excess of what his contract allowed, paying the salaries for two business managers, and unexplained credit card purchases.  

Much of the wasted funds – usually over $200,000 per year in Community Services Fund 80 spending -- has gone toward building a patronage system and buying the loyalty and silence of select school staff members.  By providing free meals and other perks to beneficiaries of the patronage system, they could be relied upon to blindly support the administration and school board when ordered to do so.

Poor management of school tax dollars also resulted in a costly $125,000 settlement with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for the misuse of Fund 80.  (An additional $37,000 was spent in legal fees.)  And about $100,000 was paid to a law firm for questionable services much of which were never authorized by the school board.  

Despite this very high level of spending Mercer ranks in the very last place of the state’s school districts 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.

While Mercer ranks among the highest of the state’s 422 school districts in the cost for educating each child, it ranks near the very bottom of the list in academic results.  It cost $20,146 a 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.

These are just some of the taxpayer dollars misspent which the new school board and administrator should focus on in preparing the 2019-20 budget.  When the budget is presented, we will know if they addressed these issues.

ACT Proficiency Results
For those who question comparing Mercer’s ACT scores to other schools, citing Mercer’s comparative small class sizes, the proficiency ratings may be more meaningful -- and the results also are not good. 

The 2018-19 ACT results for 10 students tested show that 7 were not proficient in ELA (English Language Arts), 9 were not proficient in mathematics and 8 were not proficient in science.  Or, put another way, 3 of the 10 were proficient in ELA, only 1 proficient in math, and 2 proficient in science.

To compare these results with the state results and to our neighboring high schools see the chart below.

In earlier ACT reports, (See MSF 9/28/19 More Bad News and 9/24/19 Mercer ACT Scores) Mercer ranked at or near the bottom with its ACT composite scores.  One argument has been that relatively small class sizes can influence the composite scores.  However, that is why percentages are used because they give an honest comparison regardless of school or class size.

The proficiency ratings have nothing to do with class size.  Instead they compare subject proficiencies of individual students within their own class.  Nevertheless, Mercer still trails the averages for the state and neighboring Lakeland and Hurley High Schools in all categories and in all years except in only one incident.

A pattern of low scores, as is the case with Mercer, indicates that something is amiss with school’s curriculum and with the management of the school. The new administrator and new school board have the opportunity to fix a broken system.


2018-19             ELA(1)                     MATH                       SCIENCE

                             Prof.    Not Prof.         Prof.     Not Prof.            Prof.      Not Prof.  

MERCER   10(2)       30.8%  69.2%              7.7%     92.3%                 15.4%    84.6%

  No. of Students((3)    3          7                       1            9                         2             8

STATE                        36.8     58.1                  29.2      65.8                     31.0       63.8

LAKELAND UHS       40.2     55.7                  33.3      62.6                     33.3       62.6

HURLEY                     23.8     71.4                  21.4      73.8                     26.2       69.0


MERCER  7((2)         27.3     72.7                   18.2     81.8                     18.2       81.8

  No. of Students(3)     2           5                        1           6                         1             6

STATE                        37.1     57.5                   34.5     60.3                     31.4       63.2

LAKELAND UHS       43.6     52.5                   42.0     54.1                     32.0       63.5

HURLEY                     32.6     67.4                   27.9     72.1                     34.9       65.1


MERCER  11(2)        12.5     87.5                  12.5      87.5                     12.5       87.5

  No. of Students(3)     1         10                       1         10                          1          10          

STATE                        39.5     56.4                  35.7      60.2                     31.7       64.2

LAKELAND UHS       38.9     56.7                  37.6      58.0                     30.6       65.0

HURLEY                     23.7     76.3                  21.1      78.9                     23.7       76.3
(1) English Language Arts (Combines English, reading and writing)
(2) Indicates number of students tested
(3) Student numbers rounded to the nearest whole number
PROFICIENCY LEVELS:  "Proficient" includes both Proficient and Advanced performance categories. "Not Proficient" includes both Basic and Below Basic performance categories which demonstrate some or little competency in academic knowledge and skills. (From DPI WISEdash Glossary)

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A Mercer School First
For more than a year information concerning the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s investigation into test cheating at the Mercer School was kept from the public by the school board and administration – that is, until Monday night’s board meeting.   Then, new board President Bob Davis explained the chain of events surrounding the investigation.

His attempt at transparency was refreshing.  However, he seemed somewhat critical of the fact that the former school board and administration were not more directly involved with the investigation.  Apparently, Davis was unaware that the DPI had deliberately excluded the board and administration from participating because the administration and some members of the teaching staff could have been involved in the investigation – either as witnesses or subjects of the investigation.  And at that time, Mercer had a school board majority that would not have allowed anything to be done anyway.  (Four of the five members of the current board are new, including Bob Davis.)

Asking those involved to investigate themselves would be like the proverbial “fox guarding the hen house”. 

Davis acknowledged that the Mercer School District did not have the legal authority to become involved in an individual’s licensing status and that it was the DPI ‘s responsibility.  He also pointed out that the investigation involved the testing procedure for the 10th grade Wisconsin State Forward Exam, ending speculation that ACT testing was involved.   

Davis also announced that the board was creating the position of district assessment coordinator to assure future compliance with testing procedures.  In a closed session following the regular meeting, the board gave the assignment to Mercer school counselor Amanda Kopka at an annual salary of $7,000, which is in additional to her duties as school counselor.  Last year she earned $56,656 in salary and benefits as school counselor.

Discussion of the investigation was not allowed before Monday’s meeting even though the DPI had announced to news media on several occasions that it was conducting the investigation into Mercer’s test administration and scoring.  The DPI also acknowledged the investigation in responses to citizen requests for public records. 

But in no instance were the names of individuals involved mentioned.  The first clue came when under one Mercer teacher’s license status the note “under investigation” appeared.  The teacher surrendered her license several days ago.  (See MSF 9/18/19 The Mercer Testing Scandal) This made a moot point of approving the acceptance of her resignation, also on Monday night’s agenda.   Davis explained that the board had no authority to approve or disapprove the resignation because under state statutes it had no option but to end her employment if she no longer had a teaching license.    (That teacher received a total of $90,352 in pay and benefits during the 2018-19 school year.)

The question remains: Has the investigation ended?  Monday night’s school board agenda provides a hint that maybe it isn’t over.  A closed session agenda item called for the board to discuss matters of “District Testing Allegations/Investigation”.  When the board returned to open session, Davis reported that it had not taken any action on the matter.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

More Bad/Sad News
The just announced 2018-19 Mercer School ACT composite score, as well as those going back at least five years, reflect on a failed administration and an ineffective former school board.  But it gives the new school board and new administrator the opportunity to fix a badly broken situation.

From the time former Administrator Erik Torkelson was hired by his mother-in-law, Kelly Kohegyi, in 2011, the school’s ACT scores have been in the cellar. Mercer’s composite score has never reached the state average for all the 422 school districts.

Mercer placed 19th in the latest list of 20 northern Wisconsin school districts with an abysmal ACT composite score of 17 for 2018-19.  In the year before, 2017-18, it was in 14th place with an 18.4 score and in 2016-17 it was in very last place with a 16.6 score.  (See chart below)

At an earlier Mercer School District annual meeting a good citizen labelled the Mercer ACT scores as “pathetic”.   He was falsely accused of calling the students “pathetic.”   But recordings of the meeting supported his claim that the responsibility rested with the school board, the administration and staff – and not the students. They and their parents were the victims of a failed system.

Now the school district has a new administrator and four of the five school board members are new.  (Only Micki Pierce-Holmstrom is a holdover from the former do-nothing board.) When Torkelson was administrator he reined over a school board which did as he commanded.  Some inroads where made when two conscientious members were elected, but they were always outnumbered by the Torkelson clique.

 It will be interesting the hear how the new school board views these latest ACT results and what it plans to do about it.  Such public discussions were never allowed before, but the new board president, Bob Davis, has vowed “total transparency”.

While the 2018-19 ACT results are now a matter of record, it will also be interesting to learn how Mercer ranks with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s School Report Card score.  Those results should be announced in early November.  Last year Mercer was in the very last position in a list of all the state’s 422 school districts.  



Northland Pines   20.6         Lakeland UHS        20.6         Phillips                  21.6            

Lakeland UHS       20.0         Northland Pines    20.3         Washburn             20.8

Northwood           19.4         Tomahawk             20.1         South Shore         20.4

Washburn             19.3          Phillips                   20.0         Lakeland UHS       20.1

Tomahawk            19.3         Chequamegon      19.9         Northland Pines   19.9

Superior                 19.3         Northwood           19.8         Solon Springs        19.9

Chequamegon      19.3         Hurley                     19.5        Tomahawk            19.9

Rhinelander          19.1         Drummond            19.4         Drummond          19.8

Ashland                  19.1         Rhinelander          19.3         Superior                19.4

South Shore          18.9         Hayward                19.3          Ashland                 19.1

Butternut              18.9          Superior                 19.2         Mellen                   19.0

Hayward                18.8         South Shore           18.8         Rhinelander          19.0

Hurley                    18.7         Ashland                   18.6         Chequamegon      18.7

Phillips                   18.6         MERCER                  18.4         Hayward                 18.7

Solon Springs        18.1         Mellen                    18.2          Butternut               18.6

Bayfield                  18.1        Washburn               18.0          Hurley                    18.5

Winter                    17.9         Bayfield                   18.0          Northwood           17.0

Drummond            17.8         Solon Springs         18.0          Bayfield                  16.9

MERCER                 17.0          Winter                     17.7          Winter                    16.8

Mellen                    16.9          Butternut                17.7          MERCER                 16.6