TORKELSON COMP. $165,963
Contract $98,000; Benefits $30,000
3rd highest paid of state's 424 admin.
Wis. DPI Supt comp. $121,307
Cost per student Mercer $24,910,
Wis. $12,942, Nation $10,667
Mercer DPI Report Card score
lowest of all 422 Wis. schools



Saturday, December 8, 2018


More Woes for Torkelson
DPI REPORT FINDS FEDERAL AND STATE IEP VIOLATIONS
The Mercer School District failed to “properly develop and implement” a federal and state required individualized education program (IEP) for a nonverbal, blind-deaf child whose parents said they took him out of the school over their concern for his “safety and well-being.”
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has issued a 1,524 word, four-page report citing the school’s failure to follow IEP rules for the five-and-half-year-old child and ordered the school to provide a “corrective action plan” for other children enrolled as IEP students.
The school district receives federal and state funding to provide the specialized education for children with disabilities.
The plight of the child, Lelyn Schmidt, and his parents, Stormi and Ken Schmidt, surfaced in an earlier page-one Lakeland Times article.  Two other page-one Times stories by Brian Jopek captured the attention of readers throughout the area.  Jopek’s articles painted a grim picture of the way in which the boy and his parents were treated by Mercer School District Administrator Erik Torkelson and Special Education Director Deb Davis. 
Lelyn’s mother was quoted in the Lakeland Times as saying that their “current problems with the Mercer School began when in April 2017 they removed Lelyn’s seven-year-old brother from the school because of bullying.
The parents asked for a meeting with Torkelson and Davis because of the questions they had about Lelyn’s individualized education program.  During the meeting, Torkelson asked a staff member to call 911 to have the sheriff come to the school because he said the Schmidts were being disorderly.  However, after listening to a recording of the meeting, Sheriff Tony Furyk and the district attorney said that there had absolutely been nothing disorderly about the Schmidt’s’ questioning of Torkelson and Davis. 
The DPI’s investigation and ruling detailed the actions the Mercer School should have taken regarding Lelyn’s IEP and cited specific situations where “the district did not properly develop and implement the student’s IEP”.
Lelyn and his brother are now both happily enrolled at North Lakeland Elementary School.
Torkelson’s mounting problems are also documented in earlier DPI findings in his use of $175,248 of Community Service Fund 80 which had not been properly accounted for.  (See MSF 8/2/18 Another Black Eye)
For the complete DPI report regarding the Mercer School’s violations of Lelyn’s IEP go to: https://dpi.wi.gov/sped/idea-complaint-decision-18-074

Thursday, November 29, 2018


Out of the Mercer School
A NEW SCHOOL AND A NEW CHANCE FOR LELYN
The future for a former Mercer School nonverbal, deaf-blind child and his parents looks much more promising now that the boy is out of the Mercer School and enrolled in kindergarten at the North Lakeland Elementary School in Manitowish Waters.  This came across in another exceptionally well researched and written page one story by Brian Jopek in the November 27 edition of The Lakeland Times.
Jopek has done several heartfelt stories about the plight of the child, Lelyn Schmidt, and his parents, Stormi and Ken Schmidt.  The Schmidts removed Lelyn from the Mercer School in September for his “safety and well being”, according to the boy’s mother. In an earlier story, Jopek painted a disturbing picture of what appeared to be the insensitive way in which the child and his parents had been treated at the Mercer School.  (See MSF 9/28/18 Major Story Reveals Insensitive Treatment)
After taking Lelyn out of the Mercer School, the Schmidts had to find a place to live within the North Lakeland School District, meeting the requirements necessary for Lelyn to become a student there.  Normally a child can be open enrolled in another school district without having to move into the new district. But because of an unfortunate peculiarity in the law, open enrollment is not an option for children requiring special education.
The Lakeland Times reported that Schmidts still have their home in Mercer and “are proceeding with litigation against the Mercer School District.  Schmidt telling the Times last week at some point, they’d like to be out of the Mercer area altogether.” 
Lelyn’s mother told the Times that “he’s doing really well” at North Lakeland.  “Schmidt said one thing she’s noticed in the time Lelyn has begun classes at North Lakeland is that he no longer has what she describes as meltdowns he’d had when she’d pick him up from school at Mercer,” the Times went on to quote her as saying.
Still quoting from the Times: “Over the past couple of months, Schmidt said she’s been hearing ‘more and more’ about Lelyn being secluded in a therapy room at the Mercer school.  ‘Involvement in the classroom wasn’t there,’ she said. ‘The kids (at North Lakeland) are just awesome…It was really cool to see the support that we got from the school.’”
Both Schmidt boys, as well as other children who have been taken out of the Mercer School and transferred to North Lakeland under open enrollment, are doing infinitely better.  North Lakeland has a DPI School Report Card score of 85.1, significantly exceeds expectations, which for the second consecutive year places it second highest of the 23 northern Wisconsin school districts.  Mercer School’s score is 55.9, meets few expectations, places it at the very bottom of the list for the second year in a row.
Could this mean that the children are getting a better education at North Lakeland than at the Mercer School?

Tuesday, November 20, 2018


A School in Need of Repairs
WANTED: AN EXPERIENCED ADMINISTRATOR
If anyone wanted to look for a perfect example of mismanagement and misspending, they need look no further than the Mercer School District.  This point was brought home at the district’s October 29 annual meeting and budget hearing.
Mercer voters were asked to approve a $139,000 loan for replacement of a roof and ventilation control unit.  With interest, the 20-year loan will cost Mercer taxpayers $211,000.  In 2016 the district took out a similar loan for roof repairs.
For months, and at the October meeting, Mercer School Board member Christa Reinert has been asking for a facilities repair and replacement plan so that the work could be stretched out over a period of time and paid for from regular operating income.  Throughout the annual meeting and budget hearing Christa raised numerous questions about school expenditures and cited several examples of wasteful spending.
Christa asked why the district needed two business managers.  Administrator Erik Torkelson paid a total of $119,995 in the 2017-18 school year for two business managers.  Lori Boltz, who retired as business manager at the end of the 2016-17 school year, was paid $49,553 to train Tricia Thompson the new business manager. Thompson, who was paid $70,442, is the daughter-in-law of former school board member Denise Thompson, a longtime Torkelson supporter.  What’s more, Boltz has an agreement which will have her continue in that training role for two more years at presumably the same $50,000 annual cost.
A Mercer resident asked at the meeting why the administration had not started a “rainy day” fund years ago when it should have known repairs would eventually be needed.  Torkelson said that the district does not have excess funds which would permit “squirreling” away money in a capital funds account.  Remember, Torkelson pays himself more than $165,000 a year when his contract is for a $98,000 salary plus about $30,000 in benefits.
More than a year ago Torkelson brought in the engineering firm McKinstry to do a facilities improvement plan.  A long list of projects was produced which would have cost about $6 million, including interest.  When it became apparent that a Mercer voter approval of a $6 million tax increase referendum would most certainly fail, the plan was dropped.  Even then and as before, Christa asked for a pay-as-you-go repair and replacement plan.  None has been provided.
Torkelson and School Board President Noel Brandt have hinted that a tax increase referendum may be needed to make additional repairs.  Mercer taxpayers are already burdened with a $650,000 tax increase referendum, and that one is FOREVER.  Torkelson snuck that referendum past Mercer voters in February 2013 by falsely saying that it would cost taxpayers $11 per $100,000 assessed property valuation when it actually cost $137 per $100,000.  The referendum stated that the funds were needed for “maintaining education programs, technology, and FACILITIES.”
If more replacement needs are cited, we should first begin by replacing the administrator.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


NEWS FLASH

The Mercer School report card score for the 2017-18 school year sank lower. 

2017-18 Score                   2016-17 Score

       55.9                                        61.9

          Meets Few Expectations

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction just released the scores this morning.  Log on to:

https://apps2.dpi.wi.gov/reportcards/


The School Report Card scores are in for all state school districts and the Mercer School is at the very bottom of the list of all 21 northern Wisconsin schools.  Also, the Mercer School District was among 14 of the lowest ranked of the state's 422 school districts.

In October, the DPI announced the 2017-18 ACT scores for all schools, and Mercer’s composite score of 18.36 placed it 14th in the list of northern Wisconsin schools.  In 2016-17, Mercer was at the very bottom of that list with a 16.6 composite score.  (See MSF 10/6/18 Mercer School’s New ACT Scores.)
Following is the DPI’s School Report Cards scores for the 21 northern Wisconsin schools:
                  

2017-18
2016-17
Maple                        
81.3
75.6
Washburn
80.8
77.1
Tomahawk  
80.5
76.6
Mellen
79.8
78.3
HURLEY
77.1
74
Northland Pines
75.7
74.4
Northwood
75
73.3
Winter
74.5
74.3
Hayward
73.8
69.1
Chequamegon
72.6
70.9
South Shore
71.2
69.9
Drummond
70
73.1
Phillips
70
68
LAKELAND
69.8
66.7
Butternut
69.1
71
Superior
86.6
69.6
Solon Springs
68.5
68
Rhinelander
66.3
61.8
Ashland
63.2
65.1
Bayfield 
60.7
63.7
MERCER
55.9
61.9


Scoring ratings: 83-100 – Significantly Exceeds  Expectations; 73-82.9 – Exceeds Expectations;  63-72.9 – Meets Expectations;  53-62.9 -- Meets Few Expectations; 0- 52.9 – Fails to Meet Expectations.
 



Thursday, November 8, 2018


Just One of Many

ANOTHER TORKELSON FALSEHOOD

“Not a dime” of Community Service Fund 80 money was paid to Mercer school staff members.  This is what Administrator Erik Torkelson told Mercer residents at the school district’s annual meeting and budget hearing.

However, the school’s own “Historic Labor Distribution by Employee” records for the 2017-18 school year and for earlier years totally contradict Torkelson’s statement.  Those documents show, in detail, the salary and benefits each school employee received.  And those records show that, in fact, “not a dime” was paid; but, instead, the following huge amounts were doled out from Fund 80 by Torkelson to staff members and to himself:

2017-18 -- $202,691.48 paid to 22 employees

2016-17 -- $136,086.36 paid to 23 employees

2015-16 -- $133,917.57 paid to 29 employees

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has ruled that Torkelson violated the law by improperly paying salaries and benefits to “several individuals” totaling $145,716.19 in 2016-17 and 2015-16.  It is still investigating payments made in 2017-18.

“No documentation was provided indicating the salaries and benefits of the District employees were the actual, additional costs to operate community programs and services,” the DPI charged.

Nevertheless, Torkelson played to his following (the people he provides with free meals and free baby-sitting services from Fund 80) by giving false information about the misuse of taxpayer dollars at the annual meeting and budget hearing.  He knew they would not bother to seek the actual information, and even if they did, they would still blindly accept what he said.
Torkelson used Adam Kussard, director of buildings and grounds, and Tricia Thompson, business manager, as examples of school employees who had not received a “dime” from Fund 80.  But look at the following excerpts from the actual 2017-18 “Historic Labor Distribution by Employee” for Kussard and Thompson. 

So, what are we to believe -- what Torkelson said or the actual school records?

Thursday, November 1, 2018


Did They Drink the Kool-Aid?

THE ANNUAL MEETING/BUDGET HEARING FIASCO

It is unbelievable as to how low Torkelson and his goon squad will keep going. They have created a bottomless pit. I truly believe that one day his supporters will look back and see how they were duped and taken advantage of. There is a quote associated with PT Barnum, "there is a sucker born every minute." Too bad so many of them are in Mercer.

This comment was posted on Mercer School Facts by “Save Our School”.

“It was a big joke,” was another way one highly respected Mercer citizen described Monday night’s Mercer School District annual meeting and budget hearing.

And it would be a “joke” except for the tragic way Mercer residents were fed a big serving of misinformation, and many gobbled it down.  The way in which a group of Mercer residents accepted the misinformation demonstrated that they either had no knowledge of the facts or were not interested in them.  

At the very start of the meeting, Administrator Erik Torkelson led off with a number of false statements.  He said the large audience (about 150 attended) was probably there to thank the school board for reducing their school taxes. The decrease in taxes will have absolutely NOTHING to do with anything the school board has done. The decrease will result from a $12 million increase in property valuation, which spreads the tax burden over a bigger property tax base. 

Torkelson’s 2018-19 budget, in fact, provides for an increase of $178,211 in total expenditures and an almost 25% increase in Fund 80 spending.

Torkelson then went on for about 10 minutes trying to justify his misspending of taxpayer Community Service Fund 80 dollars, saying that “not one dime” is paid to school staff members. Of course, Torkelson knew that the people he had stacked the meeting with probably did not have access to school payroll information, or, if they did, it did not matter to them. 

Also, Torkelson was counting on his group as not having paid attention to a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction investigation into his improper use of Fund 80.  The DPI has ruled that $146,916 of Fund 80 money had been improperly paid to Torkelson and select staff members during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years.

The school district’s own payroll records totally contradict Torkelson’s claim for those he cited as not having received “a single dime” of Fund 80 money.  For instance, Torkelson mentioned Building and Grounds Director Adam Kussard as not having received “a single dime” of Fund 80 money.  Yet Kussard’s actual payroll record for 2017-18 clearly shows that he received $12,844 in salary and benefits from Fund 80, on top of his regular pay and benefits of $48,455.  Torkelson also mentioned Business Manager Tricia Thompson as not having received “a single dime” of Fund 80 money.  Her payroll record for 2017-18 shows that she received $13,815 in salary and benefits from Fund 80, on top of her regular salary and benefits of $56,627.

Torkelson does not keep records of the alleged time he or his staff spending in providing services for Fund 80 programs, a violation the DPI cited him for in disallowing the $146,196.  Nor does he keep any records of how many people actually use the services.

One wise Mercer citizen suggested that those few people using Fund 80 services should be asked to pay a nominal fee, taking the tax burden off the many taxpayers not using the services.  The DPI also suggests a user fee in its Fund 80 manual. But Torkelson will have no part of it.

The meeting was also marred by the performances of meeting chairperson Deanna Pierpont and school attorney Mary Gerbig.   Their lack of understanding of parliamentary procedures became apparent when a motion was made by Kelly Kohegyi not to pay the school board members.  This was followed by an amendment to the motion made by Jim Hannemann to pay each member $2,500 a year.  Pierpont and Gerbig wanted to vote on the original motion first.

Expert parliamentarian Vic Ouimette tried to coach Pierpont and Gerbig about the proper procedure which requires a vote on the amendment first.  After a discussion of several minutes, a vote was taken with the $2,500 annual pay being approved.

The 2 hour and 15 minute annual meeting and budget hearing also included approval of a resolution to borrow $139,000 for school building repairs.  With interest, the 20-year loan will cost Mercer taxpayer $211,000.  The loan caused a discussion about why the needed repairs were not carried out over the last several years and paid for from normal operating income. 

More on that and other annual meeting/budget hearing issues in a coming blog.

Thursday, October 25, 2018


It’s YOUR Tax Dollars

THE ANNUAL MEETING -- BE SURE TO ATTEND

How can anyone be serious about proposing an almost 25% increase in Fund 80 spending from $203,000 to $250,000 when the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has already ruled that $175,248 was misspent or inappropriately accounted for?

Does a 20% increase from $352,922 to $422,158 in administration costs mean that Administrator Erik Torkelson plans to pay himself more than the $165,963 he took home in pay and benefits in 2017-18 ($168,041 the year before)?

And what about the $178,211 increase in total expenditures, or the $232,301 shortfall between expenses vs. revenues?

These are just some of the questions Mercer taxpayers should seek answers to at the Mercer School District’s annual meeting and budget hearing at 5 p.m. Monday, October 29, at the school. The annual meeting and budget hearing give Mercer taxpayers their only opportunity to raise questions about runaway spending, school mismanagement and dismal educational results. 

The proposed 2018-19 budget was presented to the school board by Torkelson at an October 15 special meeting.  Two school board members, Christa Reinert and Karl Anderson, raised many significant concerns, while Torkelson lackeys Noel Brandt, Deanna Pierpont and Micki Pierce-Holstrom sat mostly silent. An exception was the few times Board President Brandt mumbled some comments which no one in the audience could hear. 

The special meeting also was called to approve a contract for roof repairs.  The board approved a bid of $69,895. It was later advertised that Mercer residents would be asked at the October 29 annual meeting to approve a $139,000 loan   to cover the roof repairs and a new heating/ventilation control unit costing $21,345.  So how will the remaining $47,760 be spent? 

No other items were included in the October 15 agenda.  Nevertheless, board member Deanna Pierpont read a letter which had nothing to do with the proceedings.  In the past, Pierpont always pretended to be a stickler for meeting protocol, except when it served hers or Torkelson’s purposes.  The letter she read on October 15 was allegedly from a parent praising the free baby-sitting services Torkelson provides at taxpayer expense. 

At a meeting some months earlier, Pierpont made another huge blunder by reading a student letter which she must have known falsely accused a Mercer citizen of calling the students pathetic when, in fact, he said the ACT scores pathetic.  Several digital audio recordings confirmed the citizen’s statement, and a school video recording of the meeting would also have confirmed it.  The meeting videos were always posted on the school’s website until that meeting when the video was destroyed.  Pierpont was quoted in a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article as saying that she destroyed the video recording.

Included in the many questions Christa and Karl raised at the October 15 meeting about the proposed budget were several concerning much-needed repairs to the school’s infrastructure. Christa pointed out that we are now being asked to approve a $139,000 budget and loan for building repairs when the administration had years to make repairs out of regular operational income.  She also said the board was promised a prioritized list of needed repairs months ago but never received it. 

Brandt hinted that Mercer taxpayers may be asked – now get this – to approve another tax increase referendum for building repairs. This would be on top of the $650,000 never-ending tax increase referendum Torkelson got taxpayers to approve in 2013 by promising that their taxes would go up $11 per $100,000 assessed property valuation when they actually went up $137.

Christa asked why some of that tax increase referendum money had not been used in making building repairs.  A sensible question, but then sensible things don’t seem to happen with this administration.

Friday, October 19, 2018


The October Meeting

ANOTHER FAILING GRADE FOR THE MERCER SCHOOL BOARD

At a time when the Mercer School District Administration and School Board are being investigated for the misuse of taxpayer Fund 80 money, test administration and scoring irregularities, and open meetings and destruction of public records violations, you would expect the Board to show some responsibility in handling the school’s financial issues.

But it didn’t.  That is three of the five members of the board, Noel Brandt, Deanna Pierpont and Micki Pierce Holstrom, didn’t.  They sat like bumps on a log at the October School Board meeting when they were supposed to be reviewing a flawed proposed budget for the 2018-19 school year.  Only Board members Christa Reinert and Karl Anderson had the integrity to raise many significant inquiries about the questionable budget prepared by Administrator Erik Torkelson.

Of more significance is what may have happened in a closed session of the School Board.  Christa had asked for the closed session to address the behavior of the Administration and Special Education Director Deb Davis for “lacking compassion and understanding” in handling the needs of a blind-deaf, 5-1/2- year-old child.  (See MSF 9/28/18 From the Lakeland Times) The request for the closed session also asked the board to “consider the current state of the Mercer school under the seven years of Erik Torkelson’s tenure.” 

We have no way of knowing what was said in the closed meeting because Board members are prohibited from revealing that information. It’s not difficult to imagine what may have happened because Torkelson had his lawyer attend, and his three School Board lackeys -- Brandt, Pierpont and Pierce -- were not likely to allow anything to happen to their master.   And it didn’t.  After the hour-and -half long closed session, Brandt reported that no action was taken. 

Based on the “no action taken” result and the length of the meeting, it is probably safe to assume that the lawyer and Torkelson’s lackeys spent the time defending Torkelson and possibly even turning it into an attack on Christa and Karl.    

Mercer citizens will get the opportunity to review and revise the budget at the School District’s annual meeting at 5 p.m. on Monday, October 29, at the school.  Meanwhile they can review the proposed budget by going on line to the school’s website.  It was also be published in the Iron County Miner. 

Many people in the audience had a difficult time hearing the open meeting proceedings, particularly the mumbling by Board President Brandt.  “We can’t hear you,” shouted a number of people many times. 

Two former School Board members were heard to say, “You’re not supposed to.  It’s a meeting of the School Board.”  An amazing statement, particularly coming from former School Board members who should know what Wisconsin’s attorney general has said:

“Wisconsin’s open government laws promote democracy by ensuring that all state, regional and local governments conduct their business with transparency. Wisconsin citizens have a right to know how their government is spending their tax dollars and exercising the powers granted by the people.”

Incidentally, the lawyer who attended the closed session is with the law firm of Davis/Kuelthau.  That law firm is supposed to represent the School Board, but it has been taking its orders from Torkelson.

COMING SOON:   The budget issues raised at the October meeting with a hint that Torkelson may again try to increase school taxes with another referendum.