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, October 27, 2020

The Annual School District Meeting


Mercer could very well have its own version of the 1950’s popular hit song “What a Difference a Day Makes” *, and it could be entitled “What a Difference a Few Years Make”.

This was evident at Monday night’s Annual School District meeting when only 13 people attended, in stark contrast with the hundreds who would jam the meeting hall just a few years ago.   And it was a tranquil meeting, compared with the turbulent 2017 meeting when obscenities were shouted by a school board member and another board member charged, in a threatening manner, at a senior citizen who was calmly asking the board to address the problem of the school’s low ACT scores.

There are probably several reasons for the meager attendance Monday night.  The meeting was held “in person” and people may have stayed away for fear of the rising Covid-19 virus cases in Iron County,  (The meeting was held in the school’s gymnasium with seating eight feet apart and face masks required.) Or it could because there was nothing controversial about the budget hearing portion of the meeting.  Then, too, residents may be pleased with the performance of the “new” school board and administrator and saw no need to attend.

A 2020-21 budget was presented which will result in a small 1.5% increase in total expenditures, rising $53,311 from $3,487,802 in 2019-20 to $3,541,113 in 2020-21.  A slight decrease in school taxes will result from an increase in property valuation in the school district and a slightly lower levy rate.  The budget set the annual tax levy at $2,251,298, dropping the millage rate slightly to 4.74% from 4.82% last year.

Unlike in previous years when the annual meeting date was always set for the last Monday in October, the electors voted to give the board the authority to set next year’s meeting date at least by the time of the board’s June meeting. Under state law, the annual meeting must be held before October 31.  Some of the data needed by the board to finalize a budget is normally not available until shortly before that deadline. 

The only issue of concern at Monday night’s meeting were some items on the Community Services Fund 80 budget.  The School Board has budgeted $157,720 for 2020-21 Fund 80, compared with $120,874 actually spent in 2019-20.  The controversial free meals for the public and payments to  Paw Shop volunteers remain in the new budget, but the administrator and board were asked to examine  DPI rules and state statutes to determine that the criteria for use is being met. 

It was also voted to increase the board members’ annual salaries from $2,500 to $3,000. A proposal to reduce it to $2,000 was defeated.

*“What a Difference a Day Makes”is an English translation of María Grever’s 1934 Spanish-language song “Cuando vuelva a tu lado”. The English version was first recorded that same year and has been redone many times since, though Dinah Washington’s 1959 version is the most famous.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The 2020-21 Budget


Mercer taxpayers can feel some relief from a school 2020-21 budget that contains no big changes or surprises, which is in stark contrast to several years ago. But they can also expect a surprising small decrease in school taxes.

The school board approved a budget Monday which will result in a small 1.5% increase in total expenditures, rising $53,311 from $3,487,802 in 2019-20 to $3,541,113 in 2020-21.  The slight decrease in school taxes will result from an increase in property valuation in the school district and a slightly lower levy rate.  The proposed budget sets the annual tax levy at $2,251,298, dropping the millage rate slightly to 4.74% from 4.82% last year.

Plans for the school district’s annual meeting and budget hearing at 5 pm. Monday, February 26, were also announced at the Monday meeting.  The meeting will be held “in-person” in the school’s gymnasium with face masks required and seating at social distances.  Until now, Mercer residents could attend regular board meetings only by the Zoom method.

According to the proposed budget, the contentious Fund 80 budget will rise $36,846, from $120,874 in 2019-20 to $157,720 for 2020-21.  Partly responsible for the increase were required additions to the middle school sports program.  Just a few years ago much of the Fund 80 money was spent on undocumented payments to the former administrator and select staff members.  Back then the Fund 80 budgets were often more than $250,000. 

A bit of unpleasant news announced at Monday’s school board meeting was school enrollment numbers.   PreK-12 grades enrollment is down about 10% to 128 students.  It was noted that many schools have the problem of decreased enrollments because of smaller family sizes and working couples waiting longer to start their families.

Monday’s budget meeting lasted almost two hours with numerous questions and discussion.  It was available to the public via Zoom.  Under the old regime, the school board’s budget meetings were held in private in the administrator’s office.  Another sign that we are headed in the right direction.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Thursday, September 10, 2020




Biting the Bullet



Many Wisconsin school districts appear to be more aware of the economic realities of maintaining small schools and are focusing on consolidating within larger school districts.  They also cite the academic advantages provided by larger schools.


Ben Meyer of radio station WXPR in Rhinelander did a news report about the controversial proposed closing of the 80-student Maple Grove Elementary School in the Merrill area school district.  “Disagreement Over Merrill School Symbolizes Rural Elementary Closure Trend in the Northwoods”, was the title of his comprehensive study.


Meyer reported that 27 elementary schools have been closed since 1993 in an eight-school district area which includes Rhinelander, Phillips, Wausau and Merrill.


The Mercer K-12 School District, with 145 students, has been involved in similar speculation.  Suggestions have included keeping the school as is or consolidating it with the Hurley School District and keeping the lower grades in Mercer while transferring the middle and high school students to Hurley.  


The argument has been made that because of Mercer’s small class sizes it does not have the advantage of the broad curriculum that a larger school provides.  Apparently for that reason, some parents have transferred their children out of the Mercer School to Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua. 


Years ago, the Mercer School Board discussed a possible consolidation with the Hurley School District but  gave up the idea because it was thought it would result in tax  increases for Mercer property owners.  However, recent studies by several people have indicated that a consolidation could now be done without any increase in school taxes.


It cost Mercer taxpayers $25,097 a year to educate each Mercer student.  The state average for all 421 school districts is $13,505, and for Hurley it cost $13,816 per student.


For that $25,097 per student cost, Mercer’s academic results have been abysmal.  A Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction school report card score of 50.4, “fails to meet expectations”, placed Mercer alone in that category and at the very bottom of the list of all the state’s 421 school districts.  Also, Mercer’s ACT scores have consistently been below averages for the state and all 20 Northern Wisconsin school districts.


Of course, those results were under the former administrator and his inept and culpable school board.  Mercer now has a new administrator and an entirely new school board.


As school districts face tight budgets, they often must choose between more physical schools or better programs, Meyer said in his news report. 


“Any time you close a building like that, it does become very contentious,” Meyers quoted Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance Executive Director Kim Kaukl as saying.  “What’s important for our kids? A building or strong programming?  To be viable, programming, to me, is always going to come out ahead.”


Maple Grove plays a role not just as a place of learning, but as a community hub. That’s common among rural schools, according to Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Deputy Superintendent Mike Thompson.


“There’s a lot of passionate ownership around that school, around the smallness of that school.  That’s really where there’s the tough decisions to happen,” Thompson said.


The money saved by closing Maple Grove is needed to improve programming and educational support across the district, according to Merrill School District Superintendent John Sample. “Right now, in my opinion, our student achievement is unacceptable, and that’s across the district.”


According to the latest DPI school district report cards, Merrill scored a 66.8, putting it into the “meets expectations” category, according to Sample.


“Yes, (Maple Grove is) holding their own as far as meeting the expectations, but I think the resources that we can provide in town (Merrill) are much richer than what they’re receiving right now because of where they’re located,” Sample added.


Good Thinking



The Mercer School District has come up with a plan which it believes will provide a safe way for students to resume their educations this fall.  The Covid-19 virus continues to infect an increasing number of Iron County residents with the count up to 118 today.  On a per capita basis Iron County has the highest percentage of Covid-19 cases of all counties in Wisconsin and all counties east of the Mississippi River.


Still undecided is what to do about the Mercer School’s fall sports program – football, volleyball and cross country. Mercer/Butternut eight-player football is in the Lakeland Conference, which has not decided how to proceed.  A few conference schools have already indicated that they will not be playing this fall.  Volleyball and cross country fall within the Indianhead Conference and the conference administrators were to meet last night to decide whether to play this fall or move the fall schedule to next spring.


Even for those Mercer residents who do not have children in the Mercer School, its carefully thought-out Back to School Plan is worth reading.  It follows:


Mercer School District


Information for Fall 2020


Welcome Tiger Families,


            The Mercer School District is dedicated to providing a safe place for students to learn. We welcome your input into how we can better serve our students and families during these historic times. We are so excited and hopeful that we will be able to see everyone in person on September 1st.

            The dedicated staff of the Mercer School District is looking forward to a year full of a variety of learning experiences while also anticipating challenges along the way due to COVID-19. We thank all the families for working with the school and teachers to keep students’ education a high priority. We are welcoming some new staff members this year: Maddi Piburn will be teaching 6th grade, Sarah Rand-Engler will be teaching 7-12 Science,, Colin Anderson will be teaching 7-12 Social Studies, and Jonathan Erickson will be our new music teacher beginning in January. Please help me welcome them all to our Tiger Family.

            Throughout the school year, we will follow guidance from state and local health department officials regarding school opening or possible closures. While we are altering certain aspects of the school day, our goal is to maintain the most normal environment possible while keeping students and staff safe. As we open school, each person must understand the role they play on keeping everyone safe. It is imperative that if you or your child are experiencing any flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, chills, sore throat, etc) that you keep your child home. We will be discontinuing any perfect attendance awards this year so no one feels compelled to come to school.


I look forward to seeing all of you soon!

Ms. Sheri Kopka

Mercer School District Administrator


We have three instructional options for students at the Mercer School this year.

     In-Person Learning

     All students PK-12 attend in person five days per week.

     Staff and students are encouraged to wear face coverings on the bus and in common areas of the school.

     Classrooms will be arranged to promote social distancing.

     Blended/Virtual Instruction

     Teachers will broadcast live from their classrooms to students who are not able to attend in person for any reason.

     Homework will be sent home and technology will be provided to access online learning.

     Virtual Learning

     We expect that at times the Mercer School may need to close to students. During this time teachers will move to full-time virtual instruction with a schedule to be provided.

     Teachers will instruct students daily and homework assignments will be posted online in Google classrooms.


Physical Spaces

     Desks will be placed six feet apart in all classrooms to the extent possible.

     Social distancing will be taught and practiced throughout the school

     Safety signage will be placed throughout the school.

     Drinking fountains will allow bottle filling only.

     We will create an isolation room for ill students and staff

     Outdoor learning areas are being created.

     Specials classes are encouraged to be held outside to the extent possible.


Healthy Environments

     Cleaning and disinfecting protocols will be set daily and weekly.

     High touch surfaces and common use areas will be disinfected throughout the day.

     Sharing of objects will be limited- all students will have their own technology and supplies to be used.

     Hand hygiene will be taught and practiced throughout the day.

     Hand sanitizer will be available in all classrooms without a sink.

     Additional cleaning will occur throughout the building.

     Custodial staff will complete recycling.



Daily Operations

     Visitors- Limit non-essential visitors and visits. (Essential visitors will need a health screening and be required to wear a face covering)

     Students should limit the interaction outside of the classroom environment.

     Face Coverings- face coverings are encouraged by students and staff in all common areas of the building and when social distancing is not possible.

     Field trips- field trips are generally not allowed unless it is by one class to an outdoor space.

     Gatherings- no gathering of people is permitted at this time (no fundraising activities unless approved by the school)

     Families are asked to check their child/ren before sending them to school for any signs or symptoms of COVID-19 and keep them at home when ill.

     Teachers are required to check themselves for any symptoms each morning and not come to the building if they are showing any symptoms.

     Staff- staff may be reassigned as needed to cover the daily needs of the school prioritizing student learning and safety.

     Morning announcements will be conducted every day via Zoom at 8 am.

     Outdoor learning spaces are being created for use by teachers.

     To be counted for attendance students will need to either be present in school or log in online.



     Students are encouraged to wear a face-covering on the bus

     Each student will have an assigned seat on the bus and must remain in their seat.

     Seating arrangements will be based on social distancing, family groups, and daily groups.

     Busses will be cleaned after each run.

     Hand sanitizer will be available on the bus.

     Families are encouraged to transport their children to school and a survey has been sent to determine who is riding the bus to design a seating chart.

     Students should practice social distancing at the bus stop.

     Parent pick-up will occur from 3:15-3:25 or after the busses have left.

     The front of the school will have a one-way flow of traffic in the morning and afternoon.

     Parents will not be allowed in the building to pick-up students. Students will be escorted out to the parents waiting in the parent pick-up area.

     Bus arrival in the morning will be staggered to prevent the overlap of students in the hall to the extent possible. Busses will begin dropping off at 7:45.

     End of day release will occur with 9-12 being released at 3:28 followed by 7-8 at 3:30. PK-6 will have a staggered release to decrease the number of students in the hallway at any one time.


Cafeteria and Lunch

     Students in grades Pk-8 will eat lunch in their classrooms.

     Lunch will be brought to the room on trays.

     Teachers may not eat lunch together and are encouraged to eat in their classrooms.


Playground and Recess

     Groups will have assigned spaces outdoors for play.

     Students in grades PK-6 will have both a morning and afternoon recess.

     There will be a schedule for use of the playground area with a minimum of 15 minutes between each group using the equipment.


Registration/Conferences/Open House

     We are asking that families return their registration forms prior to or on the first day of school.

     We will not be holding an in-person open house this year.

     Conferences will be conducted over Zoom in October



Tuesday, August 18, 2020



Loon Day and Covid-19


The number of Iron County Covid -19 virus cases continues to rise in the aftermath of the decision to put money ahead of the health and safety of local residents and proceed with the Mercer’s annual Loon Day festivities. The Iron County Health Department reported Tuesday that to date it has recorded 85 Covid-19 cases.   Just before Loon Day there were 68 cases.


It remains to be seen what the Mercer School Board will do considering the increasing number of Covid-19 virus cases in Iron County.  At its July 27 meeting, the school board approved a plan for reopening the school with an option for students to return to normal five-day school week or attend classes by virtual study on-line at home.  (See MSF 7/20/20 Mercer School Board Meetings)  Some schools in other areas that open early have had to close back down because of major Covid-19 virus outbreaks in their schools.


The school board deferred making a decision regarding the fall sports programs --- football, volleyball and cross-country – until its August 24 meeting at which time a plan is to be presented.  Athletic Director Adam Miller was to develop the plan, but Miller is reportedly ill with Covid -19.  Some major college football leagues, including the Big 10 and Pack 12, have suspended their fall schedules until next spring.


Two more Mercer restaurants -- Tom’s Café and Liberty Way -- have closed as result of employees testing positive for Covid-19.  Earlier four other restaurant/bars closed because of Covid-19 infected employees.


There is no way of knowing how many Iron County residents were infected with Covid-19 by attending the August 5 Loon Day festivities.  Also, non-county residents attending the event could have been infected and carried the disease back to their own counties where they would be counted. 


In any event, Covid-19 cases continue to increase in the state with 70,796 confirmed cases and 1,050 deaths.  On a per capita basis, Iron County ranks number one in the state with the most cases, and number one of all counties east of the Mississippi River.


Mercer Loon Day was the only known crowd-attracting event held in Wisconsin.  Mercer Town Chairman John Sendra pushed for holding the event despite the threat it imposed.  He said that local businesses had been losing income due to the disease and that Loon Day was needed to help those businesses.  Sendra operates the Cranberry Inn and Motel.


At a July 24 Mercer Town board meeting, board member Vic Ouimette made a strong case for not holding this year’s Loon Day because of the danger the disease imposed.  Board member Opal Roberts stood with Ouimette.  However, Sendra and board members Mike Lambert and Eric Snow voted to proceed with Loon Day.  (See MSF 7/24/20 The Loon Day Controversy)


Friday, August 7, 2020


Torkelson’s Separation Agreement



Mercer taxpayers may not know it, but they coughed up $80,000 in cash to get rid of deposed Mercer School District Administrator Erik Torkelson.


The payment was made to Torkelson on June 29, according to the school district’s June summary check register.  Other details are contained in a June 22, 2020 “Separation Agreement and General Release”, which is being circulated throughout the district.


The Mercer School Board was being criticized for not disclosing the terms of Torkelson’s separation.  However, a “Confidentially” clause in the agreement prohibited the district from disclosing the terms, unless a public records request was made, which was done by a Mercer citizen.


 Other considerations in the agreement require that the district pay $1,260 as its share of Torkelson’s Wisconsin Retirement System for the 2019-20 school year.  Additionally, the district will provide Torkelson with dental insurance coverage through June 30, 2021.


The school board had been negotiating getting rid of Torkelson, using its attorney, since after he reportedly had a stroke in mid-June 2019 and was placed on medical leave. Some part of $85,824 paid to the district’s’ law firm from June 2019 through June 2020 most likely involved those negotiations.


During his medical leave Torkelson was paid by the district’s long-term disability insurance carrier. School records show that for the 2019-20 school year he was also paid $41,138 in salary and $7,644 in benefits, probably for the time before and after the disability insurance was in effect.   


The school board may face public criticism for paying Torkelson anything.  In fact, the argument could be made that he should have been required to pay back the many thousands of dollars he overpaid himself since becoming administrator in 2011.  In some years he took home more than $150,000 in salary and benefits, when his contract was for $98,000 in salary plus about $30,000 in benefits.


Then, too, there was the Fund 80 money which the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction found he had misspent.  For just the two years that the DPI investigated, it ruled that he misused $185,464, including paying himself for undocumented Fund 80 services.  The DPI did not investigate Fund 80 misspending in other years, and if it had, it would most likely would have found additional Fund 80 misuses.  The school district settled the DPI claim for about $125,000, including the district’s legal fees.    


The separation agreement stipulates that Torkelson will not “seek employment with the District at any time in the future…in any capacity”.  It also prevents Torkelson and the school district from filing any future claims.


However, nothing can prevent an individual from filing a civil lawsuit to force Torkelson and his former school board minions to pay back to the school the many taxpayer dollars that were wrongfully used.


The separation agreement considered that Torkelson’s contract would have run through June 30, 2021.   The board was faced with taking him back as administrator until then, which could result in additional misspending and mismanagement, or face a drawn-out lawsuit with possible huge legal fees and other costs.


So, it was probably a good choice by the school board.  Pay him off, get rid of the nightmare the school had lived through during his tenure, and move on.