SCHOOL FACTS
Cost per student Mercer $25,097,
Wis. $13,505, Nation $11,762
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 421 Wis. districts






Tuesday, February 25, 2020


A Step in the Right Direction

ANOTHER WIN FOR FREEDOM OF INFORMATION – WELL, ALMOST


Progress was made at Monday night’s Mercer School Board meeting toward allowing Mercer residents greater access to information about how the school is being managed.  The school board agreed to vote at its March meeting whether to restore the video recording of its monthly meetings and placing them on the school’s website.  


Mercer residents have been deprived of viewing board meetings since October 2017 when then board President Deanna Pierpont ruled that she would no longer allow the public to view video recordings of the meetings.  Until then videos of the meetings were routinely posted on the school’s website.


In fact, Pierpont was criminally charged in Iron County Circuit Court with destroying the video recording of the infamous October 2017 annual school district meeting.  The charges were subsequently dismissed under strange circumstances by then Circuit Court Judge Patrick Madden.


Even before Pierpont denied the peoples’ right to view the meetings, the public was allowed very little information about how the school was being mismanaged by former Administrator Erik Torkelson.  When Pierpont decided not to seek reelection last April and Torkelson was placed on medical leave in June, things began to improve substantially – and the public was allowed greater access to information.


The change has been was brought about by an almost entirely new school board headed by President Bob Davis and new Administrator Sheri Kopka.  “Almost entirely new school board”, that is, except from one holdover from the former Torkelson/Pierpont clique, Micki Holmstrom. Holmstrom wisely decided not to seek re-election in the coming April school board election.  Much to the public’s chagrin, Pierpont wants to be elected back on the board in the April election. 


Discussion at the February meeting about the video recording seemed to favor allowing Mercer residents more access to school information.  All eyes will be on the March 23 meeting to see if it really happens.


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.

Friday, February 14, 2020


A First

SCHOOL SEEKS COMMUNITY INPUT


After eight years of almost nothing but bad news coming out of the Mercer School – pathetic ACT and School Report Card scores, the misuse of school funds, teachers surrendering their licenses in a test cheating investigation, and more – finally comes some more good news.


Good news began to surface last June after former Administrator Erik Torkelson went on medical leave and a new administrator and an almost entirely new school board took charge.  Among the corrective actions was the restating of the school district’s financials to correct the misspending of thousands of taxpayer dollars.


And the new administrator, Sheri Kopka, has implemented some long-overdue positive actions, including setting up a Mercer School Strategic Planning Committee.  The idea is not new.  It was proposed before by an early candidate for the school board, Paul Juske, and again suggested by former school board members Christa Reinert and Karl Anderson.


But Torkelson would have no part of it.  He did not even allow school board members, which he controlled, to offer suggestions. The idea of having community members becoming involved in school issues was repugnant to him.


What would seem to be in defiance to Torkelson’s autocratic rule, Kopka wrote in a letter to Mercer Community Members: “It is important that we hear from as many stakeholders in our community as possible and we sincerely appreciate your engagement and more importantly respect your candor as we move through this process…Every person’s voice and participation is important in developing our priorities and making progress on our goals and objectives.”


The Strategic Planning Committee has held four sessions to date.  It has been working on the school’s mission.  As a part of its work, the committee will follow through with “vision, values and strategic priorities”.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020


Missing an Opportunity

A CASE FOR VIDEO RECORDING SCHOOL BOARD MEETINGS


The Mercer School Board appears to be missing out on a big opportunity, and that is by not letting the public know that it is conducting much of the school’s business in open and productive meetings. This was never allowed in the eight years during former Administrator Erik Torkelson’s reign.


But there is a simple remedy for letting the public know about the new enlightening way in which school business is being conducted.  That would be to resume video recording of the meetings and placing them on the school’s website.


The January 27 meeting of the School Board is a perfect example of why this needs to be done.   Many substantive issues were discussed in the two-hour long meeting (excluding an additional one and one-half hour closed session) with only about a dozen people in attendance.


Of course, more citizens should have enough interest in the education of the children and how their school tax dollars are being spent and attend the meetings.  But for those not inclined or unable to attend the meetings, the video recordings would be a good solution. 


Many Mercer citizens are skeptical that school affairs could ever be fully conducted in the open.  And they should be.  After all, when Torkelson ruled over the School Board the public was rarely allowed to know what was really happening – with his mismanagement and misspending.


But Torkelson is no longer in charge.  He is out on medical leave and the new School Board appears to be working on ways to make sure that he is not allowed back in the school.  Hence the closed sessions.


We have a new interim administrator, Sheri Kopka, and an almost all new School Board who are aggressively attacking the problems Torkelson created and setting the school on a positive path.  There is only one holdover board member who was part of the Torkelson/Pierpont clique, Micki Holmstrom, but she will be gone this April.  Pierpont, of course, is Deanna Pierpont, who was a major player in the school’s failing performance.  After not seeking reelection to the board last April, sadly enough, Pierpont is now seeking to be elected back on the board in this coming April’s election.  Hopefully, Mercer voters are wise enough to not vote her back in. 


The new School Board, with Bob Davis as president, is now discussing school affairs – finances, academic performance, futures plans, etc. --- in the open.  It has held closed sessions, and is legally required to do so, “to discuss administrator leave status, and to potentially take action regarding same.”


Until October 2017 School Board meetings, even though very little of substance was discussed in the open, were routinely video recorded and placed on the school’s website.  Then, Pierpont and Torkelson stopped the video recordings because the public was seeing and hearing too much of what was happening – or maybe we should say, too much of what was not happening.


So, the skeptics should give the new administrator and School Board a chance to demonstrate that they are working diligently to correct the many past problems and set a positive future course.  The ability to view meetings on the school’s website would go a long way in helping the public know this is happening.  

Tuesday, January 28, 2020


School Board Inaction

A FAILING GRADE


Just when it was beginning to seem like the new Mercer School Board was decisive and willing to take bold actions comes a big disappointment.


It happened at Monday night’s meeting when the board failed to take the long overdue and much needed action of terminating Administrator Erik Torkelson.  After an hour and one-half closed door session “to discuss administrator leave status, and to potentially take action regarding same”, it reconvened to report “no action taken.”


Torkelson has been out on medical leave since last June.  The school board  disappointingly failed to terminate him at several previous meetings.


Granted, terminating Torkelson is not a simple matter.   (See MSF 1/25/20 Dismantling an Autocracy)  But his record of failure is well documented.


Also complicating the matter is his medical leave status.  Firing him while he is on medical leave could result in a lawsuit.  In any event the school board needs to “bite the bullet” and end eight years of mismanagement and misspending.  Even some sort of cash settlement would result in a savings compared with if he is allowed back in the school.


The board seemed to be on the right track with the hiring of Sheri Kopka as interim administrator, restating the financials and taking other positive actions.


Now is not the time to reverse that trend.  

Thursday, January 23, 2020


Dismantling an Autocracy

JANUARY 27:  A CRUCIAL DATE


By now the Mercer School Board must realize, as do most Mercer residents, that former Administrator Erik Torkelson must be permanently terminated.  The new board has had at least seven months of trying to clean up the academic, administrative and financial mess Torkelson left behind.  (He has been out on medical leave since last June.)


The school board may not need to act regarding Torkelson’s employment status if a legal contract does not exist.  And that may just be the case.  The deciding factor is whether Torkelson had submitted an acceptance letter to the school board for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 contract period, which would have been required before April 1, 2019. 


Under Wisconsin Statute 118.24, School District Administrator, the term of a district administrator’s contract may not exceed two years.  If a school board does not give notice of renewal or refusal to renew a contract, it continues in force for another two years.  No such notice was given to Torkelson when the contact’s term expired at the end of June 2019, so it was automatically extended another two years until June 2021.


However, as pointed out, the catch is that the administrator must accept or reject the contract three months before the expiration date.  For the contact period 2017-18 and 2018-19 Torkelson did submit an acceptance letter to the board on March 29, 2017. 
  

If, for some reason, the school board is concerned that Torkelson may have a legitimate contract, then it has other means for terminating him.  One way involves dismissing him on the basis that, as required in his contract, he failed “to perform at a professional level of competence the services, duties and obligations” required by Wisconsin laws and the school’s job description, policies and procedures.  That should be easy to prove based on the school’s failed academic results and the documented misuse of school funds.


The other method involved board action which must be taken at its January 27 meeting.  


Wisconsin Statute 118. 24 says that a school board can refuse to renew an administrator’s contract, but it must give notice that it intends to do so five months prior to the expiration of a contract, or before February 1 in Torkelson’s case.  The administrator then has seven days to request a private or public hearing.  


If a school board then decides to proceed with the action to not renew it must give the administrator a formal notice at least four months before expiration of the contract, or by March 1 in Torkelson’s case.


So, here’s the schedule the board must follow in getting rid of Torkelson:

·        Do nothing if the school’s attorney determines that there is not a legal contract in force. 

·        OR, if Torkelson has a legal contract, remove him on the basis that he failed “to perform at a professional level of competence.”

·        OR, before February 1 – serve Torkelson with a notice that it intends to not renew his contract.

·        Before March 1 – serve him with the official notice that it will not renew his contract.

·        July 1 – Rejoice that the school has cleansed itself of the mismanagement and misspending that prevailed for eight years.


Wednesday, January 15, 2020


Mercer’s School Board Election

SOME GOOD AND SOME BAD CHOICES


Mercer voters will have some easy and not-so-easy decisions to make in the Spring School Board election.  The easy part is reelecting Sue Loth and Jeff Nehring.  The difficult part is who to select from the remaining three candidates for the other open board seat.


The two candidates receiving the most votes will fill three-year terms.  The third candidate in line with the number of votes will receive a one-year term. 


Reelecting Loth and Nehring is an easy choice.  They were appointed after last Spring’s election to fill board seat vacancies.  They have joined wholeheartedly in helping Board President Bob Davis and board member Jim Hannemann in cleaning up the mess left behind by former Administrator Erik Torkelson.  
  

The voter dilemma is who to select for the third open board position.  They must choose between Deanna Pierpont, Brian Baltz and Henry (Hank) Joustra.   The case has already solidly been made NOT to vote for Pierpont.  (See MSF 5/9/20 The Candidates)


It would seem that Baltz would not be a good choice either.  Just when the board is wrestling with how to terminate Torkelson, who is out on medical leave, Baltz might interfere with that decision.  He is a known Torkelson friend and ally, as is Pierpont.  With the two of them on the board it could become difficult to get rid of the failed administrator.  


Baltz was the best man at Torkelson’s marriage to Joy Kohegyi, daughter of former board member Kelly Kohegyi.   Torkelson removed a longtime loyal office staff member and made her a janitor in order to give the position to Baltz’s wife, Jennifer.  Torkelson also gave lucrative contracts to Baltz (about $20,000 worth) for dubious teaching programs Brian Baltz had developed.  With this Baltz/Torkelson connection it would seem that Baltz would not vote for the much-needed permanent removal of his pal, Torkelson. 


That leaves  candidate Henry Joustra.  He operates a plumbing business and is active in community affairs.  He is president of the Mercer Chamber of Commerce and the Mercer Sno-Goers. 


At this time, it is unknown what position Joustra would take on the removal of Torkelson or what support he would give in restoring sound academic and financial programs at the school.  Only time will tell.  

Thursday, January 9, 2020


The Candidates

5 FILE FOR 3 SCHOOL BOARD SEATS


Five Mercer citizens have filed for three Mercer School Board positions in the April election.  They are incumbents Sue Loth and Jeff Nehring, along with Brian Boltz, Henry Joustra and Deanna Pierpont.


First the good news.  Micki Holmstrom, the last remaining member of former Administrator Erik Torkelson’s reign, chose not to seek reelection.  This is extremely good news for the Mercer School, the students, parents and staff and the entire Mercer community.  It was Holmstrom, along with the other members of the clique – Kelly Kohegyi, Denise Thompson, Noel Brandt and Deanna Pierpont -- who gave unwitting and unconscionable support to Torkelson as thousands of dollars of taxpayer money was being wasted and misspent while the students were deprived of the education they needed.  


Holmstrom and the other four Torkelson minions backed the failed administrator as ACT scores plummeted and the Mercer School placed 422 out of the state’s 422 school district with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s School Report Card score.  


And now for the bad news.  Deanna Pierpont has filed to regain a seat on the school board.  She had been a longtime board member until she decided not to seek reelection in the Spring 2019 election. The Mercer School was blessed by her decision then not to run and is cursed now with her attempt to get back on the board.  


She was one of the signers, along with Kohegyi, Torkelson’s mother-in-law, in hiring him in 2011 without him having the qualifications or any experience as an administrator.  That was the first of many bad decision Pierpont made.  


Progress is now being made by the new administrator, Sheri Kopka, Board President Bob Davis and three other new board members. (Excluding Pierce-Holmstrom, of course.) This progress must not be reversed by electing Pierpont, who has already demonstrated that she has failed to serve the best interests of the school, the students and the community.


(More later about the other candidates.)

Tuesday, January 7, 2020


Going Where It Didn't Belong

MERCER TOWN BOARD TOLD TO SIT IN THE CORNER


The Mercer Town Board went where it did not belong,  poking its nose into a strictly Mercer School issue and  being taken to task for it.  The incident involved a  school fracas which the Town Board attempted to discuss in an open meeting, and which possibly would have been in violation of federal and state laws.  


It seems that some students got into the fracas at the school.  The Mercer School Board was properly handling the matter when the Town Board decided to get involved.  It is uncertain who on the Town Board wanted the matter discussed, but Town Chairman John Sendra usually makes those decisions.


“It blew my mind,” was the response of Mercer School Board President Bob Davis that the Town Board had considered the matter.  “Anything happening in the school could potentially become a student record which is protected by federal law, by a number of laws,” Davis said at the School Board’s December 16 meeting.


“Having the Town Board commenting on an incident happening in the school is a very bad place to go,” Davis added. “Any incident that occurs at the school will be handled properly and that particular incident was handled properly.  I have a lot of confidence in the system here as being able to handle such situations.”   


Even Town Board Supervisor Erik Snow was miffed that the subject was brought up at a Town Board Meeting.  Snow, an Iron County deputy sheriff, was reported to have lectured the other Town Board supervisors by saying that addressing the issue was totally improper and out of place.

Monday, December 30, 2019


TOP NEWS STORIES OF 2019

2019 WAS AN EXCEPTIONAL YEAR WHICH SAW MANY IMPORTANT AND UNUNUSAL NEWS EVENTS COME OUT OF THE MERCER SCHOOL DISTRICT.  THESE INCLUDED:

·       The worst Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction School Report Card score in the state and dismal ACT test results.

·       The medical leave replacement of Administrator Erik Torkelson with an interim administrator.

·       An almost complete and needed change in school board membership.

·       Criminal felony charges against three present and two former school board members, only to be mysteriously dismissed.

·       Two teachers surrendered their licenses in the aftermath of a DPI test cheating investigation.

·       Settlement of a $185,465 DPI claim that the administration had misused Fund 80 money.

HERE’S WHERE TO FIND THESE NEWS STORIES AND MORE.

                        *                              *                              *

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.  (11/12/19)

                    *                              *                              *

MERCER AGAIN NEAR LAST PLACE WITH ITS ACT SCORE

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.  (9/28/19) 

                        *                              *                              *

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. (10/15/19)

                    *                              *                              *

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.  (7/18/19)

                    *                              *                              *

A NEW BEGINNING? WELL MAYBE

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

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

Recently retired Mercer dentist Dr. Jeff Nehring and retired Racine schoolteacher Sue Loth were selected from a list of five to fill two vacant board seats.  The vacancies were created by the resignations of Karl Anderson and Noel Brandt. (8/4/19)

                    *                              *                              *

3 PRESENT, 2 FORMER MERCER SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS CHARGED WITH CRIMINAL FELONIES

Deanna Pierpont, Noel Brandt, Micki Pierce-Holmstrom, Kelly Kohegyi and Denise Thompson have been charged with Class I criminal felony counts in the Iron County Circuit Court by District Attorney Matthew J. Tingstad. 

All five defendants have been ordered to appear before Circuit Court Judge Patrick J. Madden for initial appearances at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, April 22, the same day as the Mercer School Board meeting at 5 p.m.  At the initial appearances, dates for preliminary hearings will be set.  At some point, the defendants will be asked to enter pleas of guilty or not guilty and post bonds.  Eventually trial dates will be set.

Of course, in every criminal case the defendant must be considered innocent until proven guilty. (4/6/19)

                    *                              *                              *

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. (4/23/19)

                        *                                    *                                    *

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


Information posted Monday on the DPI’s Educator Licensing website shows that Mercer history teacher Deborah Hohner surrendered her teaching license on September 11.  She resigned from her position at the school on September 6.  This followed a September 4 closed session of the Mercer School Board which had on its agenda several items apparently related to the investigation.  (See MSF 9/9/!9 The Tip of the Iceberg)  (9/18/19)



                    *                              *                              *

ANOTHER MERCER TEACHER SURRENDERS HER LICENSE

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.  (11/6/19)

            *                              *                              *

THE DPI TESTING INVESTIGATION

Sweeping foreboding information under the rug is nothing new at the Mercer School.  But what will the new Mercer School Board do about what appears to be the latest scandal to surface?

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

The former administrator and his School Board never allowed any public disclosure of the DPI investigation. There is no way of knowing how deep the investigation went or if last Friday’s firing (or resignation) is just the tip of the iceberg. (9/9/19)

                    *                                    *                                      *                

14 REASONS TO ATTEND THE SCHOOL DISTRICT’S ANNUAL MEETING

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.  (10/27/19)

                  *                                    *                                              *

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.  (6/23/19)

Monday, December 23, 2019


The Mercer School Board

A NEW YEAR AND NEW HOPE


2020 will give the Mercer School an opportunity to reverse an eight-year pattern of declining academic results and mismanagement and misspending. Progress has already been made with the replacement of Administrator Erik Torkelson and four of his five lackey school board members.


Torkelson has been on medical leave since last June. Now the new school board needs to make his removal permanent.  And the one remaining school board member who aided and abetted the mismanagement, Micki Pierce-Holmstrom, must be voted out of office when her term expires this coming spring.  


Pierce and two of her four Torkelson stooges – his mother-in-law Kelly Kohegyi and Denise Thompson – were booted off the board in earlier elections.  The other two were Noel Brandt, who moved away, and Deanna Pierpont, who chose not to seek reelection last spring because of probable rejection by Mercer voters.


The school now has a new interim administrator, Sheri Kopka, who appears to be making a sincere attempt to correct the many wrongs created over the past eight-year Torkelson reign.  Among other things she has formed a citizens’ advisory committee to receive important community input.


And four of the five school board members, all new within the last year, are working diligently to deliver reform.  While some of their actions may seem to be slow moving, it needs to be recognized that they are trying to fix eight years of mistakes.   They are providing much-need transparency and more involvement in managing school affairs, things Torkelson never allowed.


Board President Bob Davis and member Jim Hannemann have terms extending beyond next spring.  But Sue Loth and Jeff Nehring, who were appointed to fill vacancies created last spring, must stand for reelection this coming spring.


And so must Micki Pierce-Holmstrom. But the voters have an easy choice there.  Vote her out of office and the Mercer school may have an all honest, hard-working school board.


Let’s give them a chance.

Saturday, December 14, 2019


Terminating Torkelson?

BUT FIRST CLAW BACK THE $191,000+ HE WAS OVERPAID


Is the Mercer School Board working toward ridding the district of Administrator Erik Torkelson?  From some board actions it would appear so.


At the November school board meeting the board met in a closed session with the school’s attorney to “consider employment, promotion, compensation or performance evaluation data of any public employee…Specifically, to discuss administrator (Torkelson) leave status , and to potentially take action regarding same.”  But why have in an expensive counsel to simply discuss his leave status?


And the board has spent $22,685 in September and October in legal fees for what may be, in part, work on terminating Torkelson.  There is his contract to consider and whether it will be necessary to pay him to go away.  


If the board is looking for reasons to terminate Torkelson it should look at the school’s failed academic record and the documented misspending and mismanagement.  His contract requires that he “perform at a professional level of competence the services, duties and obligations required by the laws of the State of Wisconsin.” 


If the board is working on removing Torkelson it should first attempt to recover the huge amounts of money he was overpaid during his eight-year tenure.  In most years his take-home pay package was in excess of $150,000.  ($161,336 for 2015-16, $168,641 for 2016-17, $165,963 for 2017-18 and $146,359 for 2018-19) During that time his contract was for a base salary of $98,000 plus about $30,000 in benefits.  So, at a minimum he probably received excess pay of about $20,000 a year.  $20,000 X eight years = $160,000.


Add to that the additional salary he took from July 2017 through June 2019.  His school board cronies – Deanna Pierpont, Micki Holmstrom and his mother-in-law Kelly Kohegyi – awarded him a new contract raising his salary $15,500 a year from $98,000 to $113,500. The problem is that the school board never approved that contract, so it is not legal.  $160,000 + $31,000 = $191,000.


An audit of other funds and perks Torkelson may have received might produce additional significant amounts.


Any settlement should end up with him owing the school district money.  But if the school board must consider paying him to just go away, it will be money well spent. 

Saturday, December 7, 2019


 Let There Be Light
A CHANCE FOR GREATER TRANSPARENCY

“A good relationship starts with good communications,” as the saying goes.”

And good communications have been started by Bob Davis, president of the Mercer School Board, the new board members and interim Administrator Sheri Kopka.  Unfortunately, not many people are aware of it.

But there is a solution.  Resume video recording the monthly school board meetings and post them on the school’s website within days of the meetings.

Davis has given excellent president reports at the district’s annual meeting and at monthly school board meetings, which is the first time in years that there has been transparency.  He has discussed school issues of concern, something that was never allowed during the reign of former Administrator Erik Torkelson. 

Monthly board meetings video recordings were routinely placed on the school’s website until the 2017 annual meetings when one school board member shouted obscenities and another charged menacingly at a senior citizen who was speaking about the school’s “pathetic” ACT scores.

Deanna Pierpont, school board president at the time, said she erased the video and told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that it was because, “I didn’t like what I saw.”  She was later criminally charged with destruction of a public record.    In an unprecedented action, the charge was mysteriously dismissed by Circuit Judge Patrick Madden, since deceased.

The monthly school board meetings are sadly attended by usually no more than a couple dozen people.  The Iron County Miner does a good job in reporting the meetings and this blogsite highlights significant issues.  But many Mercer citizens who do not attend the meetings for one reason or another are kept in the dark. 

Resuming video recording of the meetings would help solve that problem.

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.

Saturday, November 30, 2019





More on the Report Card Scores
A LOOK AT THE 21 NORTHERN SCHOOL DISTRICTS

When conditions are good, there is a natural tendency to take credit for the results.  But when things turn bad, people begin to look for excuses.  This is what appears to be happening regarding the annual School Report Card scores recently issued by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Four years ago, Mercer School Administrator Erik Torkelson hung huge banners outside the school proclaiming success with a Report Card score of 88.0, significantly exceeds expectations. What was not known at the time was that the score was achieved because certain teachers were helping the students with the state tests upon which the Report Card scores are largely based.  (Realizing that the banners were dishonest, the new school board and interim administrator has since wisely removed them.)

A DPI investigation was launched, and the test cheating ceased.  Two teachers eventually surrendered their licenses.  Mercer’s Report Cards scores crashed and for the next three years were in the cellar.  In fact, the most recent score for the 2018-19 school year placed Mercer at the very bottom of the list of all 421 state school districts.  (See MSF 11/12/19 Mercer’s Report Card Score)

It has been suggested that small, rural schools are at a disadvantage in the scoring process.  But a look at the results for the 21 northern Wisconsin school districts seems to contradict that argument. 

Most of the 21 northern Wisconsin school districts could be considered small and probably all are regarded as rural.  But the smallest and most rural, the Maple School District, excels.  For three years running the Maple School District, with 134 students, has been at the top or near the top of the list with its School Report Card scores.  It has a three-year average score of 80.4, exceeds expectations, and has improved its score from 2016-17 to 2018-19 by 11.6%.

By contrast, the Mercer School District, with 145 students, has been in last place for the three years with a three-year average of 56.1, meets few expectations. Its score from to 2016-17 to 2018-19 dropped 18.6%, the greatest decline of all 21 districts.

Of the 21 school districts nine had three-year average scores which placed them in the “exceeds expectations” category, 10 were in the “meets expectations” class, and only two, including Mercer, were rated as “meets few expectations”.

So, what do you think?  Are all small, rural schools at a disadvantage? 

SCHOOL
ENROLL.
2018-19
17-18
16-17
3-YR. AV.
*RATING
**% DIFF.
Maple
134
84.4
81.3
75.6
80.4
2
+11.6
Chequamegon
768
79
72.6
70.9
74.2
2
+11.4
Tomahawk
1,224
78
80.5
76.6
78.4
2
  +1.9
Washburn
572
76.7
80.8
77.1
78.2
2
  -0.5
Drummond
365
75.7
70
73.1
72.9
3
 +3.6
Northland Pines
1,306
75.7
75.7
74.4
75.3
2
 +1.7
South Shore
177
74.1
71.2
69.9
71.7
3
 +6.0
Hayward
1,839
73
73.8
69.1
72
2
 +5.6
Mellen
271
73
79.8
78.3
77
2
 -6.8
HURLEY
563
71.8
77.1
74
74.3
2
 -3.0
Butternut
206
71.5
69.1
71
70.5
3
 +0.7
Winter
249
70.8
74.5
74.3
73.2
2
 -4.7
Phillips
759
69.9
70
68
69.3
3
 +2.8
Northwood
325
69.8
75
73.3
72.7
3
 -4.8
Rhinelander
2,350
68
66.3
61.8
65.4
3
+10.0
Superior
4,622
66.1
68.6
69.6
68.1
3
 -5.0
Ashland
2,093
65.3
63.2
65.1
64.5
3
 +0.3
LAKELAND
709
65
69.8
66.7
67.2
3
 -2.5
Solon Springs
273
65
68.5
68
67.2
3
 -4.4
Bayfield
365
61.1
60.7
63.7
61.8
4
 -4.1
MERCER
145
50.4
55.9
61.9
56.1
4
-18.6
 Based upon 3-year averages

     *RATINGS -- Based upon 3-year averages
     1. Significantly exceeds expectations -- 83-100
     2. Exceeds expectations – 73-82.9
     3. Meets expectations – 63-72.9
     4. Meets few expectations – 53-62.9
     5. Fails to meet expectations 0-52.9
**% increase (+) decrease (-) from 2016-17 to 2018-19