BENEFITS -- $30,704
TOTAL -- $168,641
CONTRACT -- $98,000
Increased to $113,500 for 2017-18

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Mercer Taxpayers Rebel

If the reaction of the crowd at a September 27 public hearing was any indication, then an apparent plan to plunge the Mercer School District $6 million in debt and sock taxpayers with an annual tax increase of $63 per $100,000 assessed property valuation appeared DOA (dead on arrival).
Not one person spoke in favor of the scheme and practically everyone favored paying for the proposed allegedly needed schools repairs on a priority basis and out of regular school tax revenues. Even Town Chairman John Sendra raised some concerns.
At the June School Board meeting, representatives of McKinstry Co., an engineering and consulting firm hired by the school to perform an audit of the physical plant, detailed what they said were the needed repairs: roof replacement, lighting and electrical improvements, mechanical upgrades, including a new boiler, and window and door replacements. At the September meeting, they prioritized the need for the repairs on the basis of “immediate (2017), high (2018) and medium (3 to 5 years).”
Paying for all of the repairs at once would require taxpayer approval of a $3,980,000 tax increase referendum, which would increase school taxes for 20 years.  (With interest costs of an additional $1,978.384, the debt would total $5,958,384.)  From the reaction of the crowd, such approval is not likely to happen.
In using $63 per $100,000 as an example, which was used in the presentation, Town Chairman John Sendra said there was a need to be “more realistic” about what it would actually cost taxpayers.  Many lake properties are valued at $400,000 and $500,000, according to Sendra. 
Sendra’s “realistic” scenario might look like this:
Property Value          Annual Tax Impact         20-Year Total Tax Impact                 

$200,000                     $126                                  $2,520
$300,000                     $189                                  $3,780 
$400,000                     $252                                  $5,040
$500,000                     $315                                  $6,300        

School Board Member Christa Reinert, a strong advocate of paying for the repairs on a priority basis and from regular tax revenues, suggested using the School District’s $1 million fund balance “to pay for some of the proposed improvements on an on-going basis, rather than borrowing for a 20-year term.” Reinert was applauded, and all other speakers agreed with her proposals.
One resident said: “I think it’s time for some fiscal responsibility.  We’ve got a system where we’re spending money like drunk sailors, and maybe we need to sit down and set priorities.  Any school district can only supply so much, and I think that we’ve been taxed to the limit.”
A major concern about incurring such a huge $6 million debt would be that it would close the door on any possible consolidation of the Mercer school with another school district, a matter which is being widely discussed in Mercer.  The point has been made that by consolidating, and sending at least the high school students to another school, would save the taxpayers money and provide a better education for the students  (See MSF 10/8/17 More Bad…ACT News, and 9/29/17 Mercer ACT Scores Plummet)
Several astute Mercer residents said that the real purpose of saddling taxpayers with such a ridiculously high $6 million debt would be to prevent consolidation.  Any acquiring school district would have to pay off the debt in one payment, and this would be totally unrealistic.
When the improvement project was originally presented several months ago, the possibility existed of imposing the tax burden without a referendum under the guise that the projects were for energy-saving purposes.  Wisconsin ACT 32, which would have allowed that, expired in September without renewal. 
Another concern raised at the September 27 hearing was that a referendum vote might be sneaked pass taxpayers by holding the election in February when many Mercer residents are away to warmer climates.  It was pointed out at the hearing that this was done in February, 2013, when those voters still in Mercer approved what they were lied to and told would be an $11 per $100,000 assessed property valuation but actually resulted in $137.  And that tax increase is FOREVER.
Naturally, the referendum is being scheduled for February 20, when many snowbirds “fly” south for the winter.  So those snowbirds have a decision to make: Get an absentee ballot and vote NO or be prepared to come home and pay more exorbitant school taxes. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

And It Gets Worse

As if the Mercer School’s ACT composite score – a miserable 16.6 – wasn’t bad enough, the school was also at the bottom of the heap with its student proficiency ratings.  Only 12.5% of the June, 2018, graduates are proficient in ELA (combined scores for English, reading and writing), math and science.  That left 87.5% who were not proficient. 

This put the Mercer School far below the proficiency ratings for all state schools, at the bottom of the list for ALL area schools and even below Milwaukee inner-city schools. 
The ACT results are recognized by practically all educators as the true measure of how well a school does in educating its students.  Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Tony Evers has said that good ACT scores are “what employers and postsecondary schools tell us is required for high school graduates to be successful.”
Take a look at how Mercer compares with all area schools.

                  MERCER         Statewide      Hurley        Lakeland Union
ELA*        12.5                 39.5                 23.7            38.9
Math        12.5                 37.5                 21.1            37.6 
Science   12.5                 31.7                 23.7            30.6
Other area schools

                Rhinelander   Ashland   Park Falls   Butternut   Mellen
 ELA*        35.3                  23.4          35.5            27.3             40.0
Math        22.8                  31.0          21.0            18.2             35.0
Science   22.8                  28.7          17.7            36.4             10.0
*ELA combines scores for English, reading and writing.

The Mercer ACT scores were even far below some Milwaukee inner-city schools.  For example, Rufus King High School, with a minority (Black, Asian and Hispanic) enrollment of 80% had an ACT composite score of 20.1, an ELA proficiency rating of 45.6%, math 30.5% and science 27.0%.  This compares with Mercer’s composite score of 16.6, and ELA, math and science proficiency ratings of only 12.5%.
With its ACT composite score of 16.6, Mercer also was far behind Hurley’s 18.5 and Lakeland Union’s 20.1.  The average composite score for all of Wisconsin’s 424 school districts was 20.0.  (See MSF Mercer ACT Scores Plummet 9/27/17)
Mercer is annually spending $24,582 for educating each student.  The state average is $12,842 per student.  The total cost for annual attendance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – tuition, room and board, fees, books, etc. – is $22,082.
You would expect that with Mercer, on a cost per student basis, having the second-highest paid school administrator in the state at $168,641 that its ACT scores and the proficiency ratings would not be in the cellar, and not below all area schools and even some Milwaukee inner-city schools.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Failing Grades?
When the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction announced the new ACT scores on September 27, it was a real shocker to see that Mercer scores had sunk to new lows.  Mercer trailed well behind the state scores and all other schools in the area.
The Mercer ACT composite score hit a new low of 16.6 compared with a state score for all schools of 20.0.  The scores are graded on a 1 to 36 scale.
Here’s how the Mercer composite score compares:
ACT COMPOSITE SCORES Announced by DPI on 9/27/17 (1 to 36 scale)
                               2016- 17           2015-16           2014-15
State                          20.0                    20.1                 20.0   
MERCER                   16.6                    18.1                 19.0
Hurley                       18.5                     19.4                 17.9
Lakeland UHS          20.1                    19.7                  20.0
Rhinelander              19.0                    19 6                 19.3 
Ashland                     19.1                   19.3                  18.6               
Park Falls                  18.7                   19.9                  19.0
Butternut                   18.6                   17.3                  16.2
Mellen                        19.0                   17.8                  18.5 
In every subject category Mercer trailed the state scores.

SCORES BY SUBJECTS – 2016-17 (1 to 36 scale)
                                                      Mercer           State
ELA (English language/arts)    16.3                 18.3
English                                       14.9                 19.2
Math                                            16.0                 20.0
Reading                                      17.6                 20.1
Science                                       17.1                 20.4    
STEM (science and math)         16.8                 20.5
Writing (1 to 12 scale)                 6.1                   6.3  

Historically, Mercer scores have been on a downward spiral.

2008                 21.8                                  
2009                 21.4                                               
2010                 21.0                                   
2011                 21.3                     
2012                 Redacted
2013                 20.0
2014                 Redacted
2015                 19.0
2016                 18.1
2017                 16.6      

The ACT is regarded by most educators as the true indicator of how well a school district is doing in educating its students.  According to the DPI, “ACT has a long and creditable history as an effective tool to monitor academic progress and student growth.”  
DPI Superintendent Tony Evers has said that ACT scores are what really matter. Good ACT scores are “what employers and postsecondary schools tell us is required for high school graduates to be successful,” he said.
At the last School Board meeting Administrator Erik Torkelson said that someone had sent out an email saying that the Mercer School was a failing school.  He countered by saying that the Mercer School “has been celebrated and awarded, and academically achieves higher than any other school in the area.”
The ACT scores seem to contradict what Torkelson claimed.
(Note: Beginning with 2014-15 all students were required to take the ACT test.   Before that, it was optional, so the test may have been taken mostly by those students planning to attend college.   However, this factor would affect the scores of all schools, resulting in realistic comparisons.)    

Saturday, September 23, 2017

An Important Meeting
Do you want to prevent your school taxes from going up another 10%?  Then you will probably want to be at the Mercer School at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26, when a hearing on a possible $3 million bond issue will be held.
Administrator Erik Torkelson and HIS school board are likely to ask for a voter referendum to raise the money in order to make repairs at the school.  An engineering consulting firm, hired by Torkelson to survey the condition of the school, has suggested a number of projects, ranging from new boilers to roof replacement.  (See MSF “Another School Tax Increase?” 7/10/17, and “Mercer Taxpayer Alert” 6/19/17)
School Board Member Christa Reinert has asked for a list of the repair projects on a prioritized basis so that the repairs can be made over time from regular tax revenues without the necessity of a staggering $3 million debt.  Then, too, a few years back voters approved a forever $650,000 tax increase referendum which should provide ample funds if the projects are spread out over several years and if waste is eliminated from the annual budgets.   Also, the school district is sitting on about $1 million in the bank in fund balances, money collected in taxes but not needed and not used.
What would a $3 million bond issue mean to Mercer taxpayers?  If your school taxes are, let’s say, $1,000 a year, they would be increased by about $100.  That may not sound like much for some people.  But multiply that by 20, the term for a 20-year bond, and it would cost you $2,000. 
If $2,000 doesn’t mean much to you, then don’t attend Tuesday’s meeting where you may get your only chance to question the wisdom of a needless $3 million bond issue.
Incidentally, Torkelson doesn’t live in the Mercer School District so he doesn’t pay taxes here.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Mercer Taxpayers Sound Off
In the Mercerschoolfacts blog of July 10, the question was raised as to what should be the future of the Mercer school.  The question was prompted by the realization that taxpayers could face a big school tax increase that would result from a $3 million bond issue to make school repairs.
The responses came from 57 readers and ranged from keep the school as it is to close it and consolidate with another school district.
Of 10 who wanted to keep the school, only 2 wanted it exactly as it is.  The other 8 had varying suggestions, most of which included replacing the administrator and school board.
“It wouldn’t be Mercer without the school,” said one respondent, who was one of those who also wanted to keep the school but replace the administrator and school board. 
The preponderance of responses – 47, or 82.5% -- favored some variation of a partial to full closing of the school and consolidation with another district.  Such a consolidation agreement could stipulate that the K8 grades remain in Mercer, was one suggestion.  Any consolidation agreement should guarantee that Mercer have a proportionate representation on the consolidated school board, was also proposed.
“It’s apparent that high school students can’t get the needed quality education with only 8 to 10 in a class,” said one respondent.  “A larger school would provide a larger and more specialized teaching staff, a more varied curriculum and the needed social inter-change which a small class size cannot provide.”
The present Mercer school building could be reconfigured to accommodate the K8 grades, and the unused portion closed off, one person suggested. 
“No question that Hurley, North Lakeland and Lakeland Union have the capacity to take all of the Mercer students or easily absorb a smaller number should the lower grade remain in Mercer.”
The question was raised concerning the inconvenience of busing the students.  “An extra hour a day spent on a bus would worth the quality education which the students are not now receiving,” said one respondent.
One person who apparently studied the issue said that a partial to full closing of the Mercer school would probably result in a reduction in school taxes.  He surmised that a savings could result from lower school plant operating and teacher costs, and the elimination of exorbitant administrative and staff overhead costs, which include the administrator’s $168,641 a year salary and benefits package.  Also eliminated, said one respondent, could be a large portion of some of the $200,000 wasted on Fund 80, “which does nothing to benefit the community but instead flows into the pockets of the administrator and some of his chosen staff members.”
Other savings, it was noted, would be in the costs of the Mercer sports programs – equipment, coach stipends, bus transportation, etc.  “The students would be able to participate in sports where teams are fully staffed and much more competitive.” 
So the question remains: Do we keep the school as it is as a matter of pride or should we succumb to what some view as “in the best interest of the students provide them with the quality education they need and deserve by consolidating with another school district?”

Saturday, September 2, 2017

More Questionable Spending

In the business world it used to be common to go out for two- martini lunches and then hide the cost somewhere in a company expense account.  But something like that could never happen in a school district where taxpayer money is involved.  Or could it?
This is not to suggest that someone at the school is partaking of two- martini lunches, but someone is charging drinks and food at local establishments as school district expenses.
Take, for example, the $3,210 that the school has spent of taxpayer money in the first six months of 2017 for bar and food bills.  Here’s where your school taxes went:
$620 to Beaver Lodge ($450 in 2016)
$300 to the Wolf’s Den ($560 in 2016 and $170 in 2015))
$132 to Rugger’s Landing ($175 in 2016)
$256 to Tom’s CafĂ© ($945 in 2016 and $1,257 in 2015)
$1,544 to Snow’s Family Market ($1,883 in 2016 and $2,206 in 2015)
In 2016 a total of $4,103 was spent on bar and food bills, and in 2015 that amount totaled $3,985.
The argument could be made that the purchases at Snow’s Family Market were for the school’s food service program.  But the school makes huge purchases of food and supplies for that program from food service suppliers – Reinhart Foods, Dean Foods, Sysco Food Services and Upper Lakes Foods. So what is being purchased at Snow’s, and is it going into the school’s food service program or somewhere else? 
Aside from the bar and food purchases, unexplained purchases are being made from Amazon, Best Buy and Sam’s Club.  Here’s where that school money was spent:
                      2017*            2016                   2015              TOTALS
Amazon       $2,444           $13,890             $2,429           $18,763
Best Buy                               5,091             14,348             19,439
Sam’s Club                           1,452                  861               2,313
                          *1st 6 months                                                          
It couldn’t be that some of those purchases were for the school’s computers because they were purchased directly from Apple Computer. It could be for the TVs used throughout the school.  We hope that all of those computers and TVs can be accounted for.
None of the above expenses were included in the unexplained school credit card purchases which totaled $14,643 for the first six months of 2017, $26,497 for 2016, and $25,532 for 2015.  (See MSF 8/24/17 Thanks, Mercer Taxpayers)


Thursday, August 24, 2017

Thanks. Mercer Taxpayers
Whether it’s unexplained credit card purchases or bar and food bills at local restaurants, one constant in the Mercer School District is that no one seems to care.  No one, that is, except School Board member Christa Reinert, who has been stonewalled in trying to get information about possible irregularities in school spending.
At every monthly Mercer School Board meeting a long list of expenditure and receipts is approved without any detail provided and practically no questions asked.  For instance, who used and what was purchased with the school’s credit card --$14,643 in the first six months of 2017.  Or, who is eating and drinking at local establishments-- $1,344 over the same period.  What about the $2,444 in purchases with an Amazon charge account, or the $1,313 spent at the local grocery store?
Let’s first take the Mercer School District credit card.  In the first six months of 2017, the average monthly charge was $2,441, with the highest month being $6,114.  For previous years it was: 2016 -- total $26,497, monthly average $2,208 highest month $4,947; 2015 – total $25,532, monthly average $2,128, highest month $5,389; 2014 – total for April through December $20,630, monthly average $2,292, highest month $8,049.  Therefore, for April, 2014, through June, 2017, $87,302 has been charged with the School District credit card.
A check with several other school districts found that none had school credit cards.  “It would be too difficult to manage its usage and provide the necessary oversight,” one school official said.  And a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spokesperson said that while the department does not have a policy regarding the use of school credit cards, “It would not seem like a good idea because of the potential for the abuse of their usage.”
Such abuses resulted in a guilty finding for the manager of a Mercer organization, and the forced resignation of an official of a Minneapolis area school district.  In the latter case, the FBI became involved because that district received federal funds, as do most school districts.
The use of credit cards or other non-descript purchases by government entities is rare.  Practically all such purchases are made by purchase orders or paid on the basis of definitive invoices or statements, which clearly identify the services or items purchased.  Apparently this is not the case for the Mercer School District.
Coming soon: more about the bar and food bills, the Amazon charges and the grocery store bills.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Another Taxpayer Rip-off

At the July Mercer School Board meeting Administrator Erik Torkelson had the Board approve a “memorandum of understanding,” which he said allows him to pay part of his salary and benefits from Community Service Fund 80. 
He gave his own compensation package as an example: “95% of my salary and benefits is taken out of the General Fund and 5% is taken out of the Community Service Fund” for the work he says he performs in administering  community activities.  “No one is getting more money.  It’s how the money is distributed out of which fund.”
Sounds like a reasonable action, and it is what the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction requires to keep school districts from raiding Fund 80 to hold down General Fund salary expenses. 
But, that isn’t at all the way it works in the Mercer school district.  Instead Torkelson is taking Fund 80 money and adding it to his regular salary, not making it a part of the salary.  It gets worse.
For the 2016-17 school year his contractual salary should have been $98,000, plus benefits of about $15,000.  Instead he paid himself $131,040 in salary, plus benefits of $29,169.  On top of this he added another $6,897 to salary and another $1,535 in benefits from Fund 80 for services he alleged performed in managing the mostly phony Fund 80 activities. 
As a result Torkelson paid himself a whopping $168,641 in total salary and benefits for the 2016-17 school year.  In the prior year he managed to pay himself $161,336 in salary and benefits.  And nobody on the School Board seems to be able to explain these major discrepancies or how they let it happen.  Christa Reinert is the only Board member who has been trying to get answers but has been stonewalled by Torkelson and Board President Deanna Pierpont.
Torkelson’s booty makes him the 9th highest paid administrator of the state’s 424 school administrators.  On a cost per student basis he ranks number 2.
Torkelson uses the same “memorandum of understanding” to add Fund 80 money to the pay packages of four of his staff members, not as a part of the regular salaries.
For example:  Lori Boltz, the school’s business manager, received a regular salary of $53,162 and benefits of $22,577.  Another $12,235 of salary and $5,509 of benefits of Fund 80 money was heaped on top of her regular salary and benefits to give her a total take home package of $93,483. 
So why the charade by pretending that the “memorandum of understanding” represents pay for that portion of time that Torkelson and staff members spend performing Fund 80 duties?  He is not making it a part of their salaries, which the feckless Department of Public Instruction requires, but is adding it to their regular salaries and benefits packages.
Fund 80 was created to provide services for community members, not as a honey bucket for administrators to dip into to pad the regular payroll.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

$168,641 and Headed for $184,000+
The Mercer School District set another unsavory record with Administrator Erik Torkelson’s total compensation package possibly making him the second highest paid of the state’s 424 administrators on a cost per student basis.
For 2016-17 Torkelson’s total take-home package was equal to $1,259 per student.  For the prior year it was $1,204.
Mercer School records show that for the school year 2016-17 Torkelson took home $168,641 in salary and benefits.  For the 2015-16 he took home $161,336, which made him the 11th highest paid administrator in the state.  State records for 2016-17 are not as yet available, but based on year-earlier data Torkelson could move up into the 9th highest paid position.
His contract in 2015-16 and 2016-17 provided for a base pay of $98,000 plus benefits of about $15,000.  No one is able to explain and there was no apparent school board approval for him to take home $121,307 and $131,040 in cash for each of the years.  His base pay was raised to $113,500 for the new 2017-18 school year by the board at its June meeting.
On a pro forma basis with a new base pay of $113,500 and 2016-17 benefits of $37,601, plus an unexplained $33,040 in cash, Torkelson’s 2017-18 booty could reach more than $184,000. 
And this with a dismal Mercer school composite ACT score of 18.1 which is far below the state average of 20.1.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Mercer residents have learned not to believe much of what is written in the FYI Northwoods about the Mercer School Board and its administrator.  But the newspaper’s coverage of the June 26 meeting was just too much.
The FYI reported that the board gave Administrator Erik Torkelson a new base-rate salary of $113,500.   That part is true, although last year he actually took home $132,040 in cash and another $29,296 in benefits for a total of $161,336.   His contract provided for $98,000 in cash and about $15,000 in benefits.
But here’s the real kicker:  FYI said that his new salary was approved by a 4 to 1 vote, with Torkelson’s mother-in-law Kelly Kohegyi voting against the pay raise.  Now you don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to figure out that his mother-in-law would not vote against a pay raise for her son-in-law.
The FYI reporter compounds his use of “alternative facts” by further stating that voting for the salary increase were board members Christa Reinert, Micki Pierce-Holmstrom, Noel Brandt and Board President Deanna Pierpont.  Christa Reinert would NEVER agree to increase Torkelson’s salary because she and others are still waiting for an explanation of how Torkelson managed to scoop up the $161,336 without any apparent board approval.
Mother-in-law Kohegyi abstained from voting, which legally she was required to do.  So the vote was actually 3 to 1 with Christa Reinert voting a big NO.  (See MSF More $$$$$$ for Torkelson 6/27/71)
The FYI reporter went on to say that Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction figures show that Torkelson was paid $98,000 for the 2015-16 school year.  DPI records show his contracted salary, not what he actually took home. Any enterprising reporter would have asked for the school’s own records, and they would show the $162,232 booty.
Regular coverage of the monthly school board meetings contains nothing but praise for the administrator and the board, except when it gets an opportunity to criticize board member Christa Reinert, who was elected to clean up the school district mess – the mismanagement of school funds, a below-average composite ACT score, the showing of the sexually explicit movie “50 Shades of Grey” to young school girls, the conviction and fine for violating the public records law, the Iron County district’s attorney’s ruling that  the board violated the open meetings law, and on and on.
So much for the shoddy reporting by FYI Northwoods and its use of “alternative facts.”