TORKELSON COMP. $146,359
Contract $98,000; Benefits $30,000
Wis. DPI Supt. comp. $121,307
Cost per student Mercer $20,146,
Wis. $12,942, Nation $10,667
ACT comp. score Mercer 17.0,
Wis. 19.6, Lakeland UHS 20.0,
Hurley 18.7; perfect score 36.0
Mercer DPI Report Card score
lowest of all 422 Wis. schools





Tuesday, October 15, 2019


The 2019-20 School Budget
SPENDING ISSUES CONFRONT THE NEW SCHOOL BOARD AND NEW ADMINISTRATOR
“We must consult our means rather than our wishes,” said George Washington in discussing the budgetary process more than 200 years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

Despite this very high level of spending Mercer ranks in the very last place of the state’s school districts by the DPI with its annual School Report Card scores.  It has also been well below the state and national averages with its ACT composite scores.

While Mercer ranks among the highest of the state’s 422 school districts in the cost for educating each child, it ranks near the very bottom of the list in academic results.  It cost $20,146 a year to educate each Mercer student, compared with a state average of $12,942 and national average of $10,667. The average annual all-inclusive cost for educating a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is $22,082.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  ACT PROFICIENCY

2018-19             ELA(1)                     MATH                       SCIENCE

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

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

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

STATE                        36.8     58.1                  29.2      65.8                     31.0       63.8

LAKELAND UHS       40.2     55.7                  33.3      62.6                     33.3       62.6

HURLEY                     23.8     71.4                  21.4      73.8                     26.2       69.0

2017-18

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

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

STATE                        37.1     57.5                   34.5     60.3                     31.4       63.2

LAKELAND UHS       43.6     52.5                   42.0     54.1                     32.0       63.5

HURLEY                     32.6     67.4                   27.9     72.1                     34.9       65.1

2016-17

MERCER  11(2)        12.5     87.5                  12.5      87.5                     12.5       87.5

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

STATE                        39.5     56.4                  35.7      60.2                     31.7       64.2

LAKELAND UHS       38.9     56.7                  37.6      58.0                     30.6       65.0

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

Wednesday, October 2, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 28, 2019


More Bad/Sad News
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.  (See chart below)

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

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

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

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

20 NORTHERN WISCONSIN SCHOOLS

COMPOSITE ACT SCORES


Northland Pines   20.6         Lakeland UHS        20.6         Phillips                  21.6            

Lakeland UHS       20.0         Northland Pines    20.3         Washburn             20.8

Northwood           19.4         Tomahawk             20.1         South Shore         20.4

Washburn             19.3          Phillips                   20.0         Lakeland UHS       20.1

Tomahawk            19.3         Chequamegon      19.9         Northland Pines   19.9

Superior                 19.3         Northwood           19.8         Solon Springs        19.9

Chequamegon      19.3         Hurley                     19.5        Tomahawk            19.9

Rhinelander          19.1         Drummond            19.4         Drummond          19.8

Ashland                  19.1         Rhinelander          19.3         Superior                19.4

South Shore          18.9         Hayward                19.3          Ashland                 19.1

Butternut              18.9          Superior                 19.2         Mellen                   19.0

Hayward                18.8         South Shore           18.8         Rhinelander          19.0

Hurley                    18.7         Ashland                   18.6         Chequamegon      18.7

Phillips                   18.6         MERCER                  18.4         Hayward                 18.7

Solon Springs        18.1         Mellen                    18.2          Butternut               18.6

Bayfield                  18.1        Washburn               18.0          Hurley                    18.5

Winter                    17.9         Bayfield                   18.0          Northwood           17.0

Drummond            17.8         Solon Springs         18.0          Bayfield                  16.9

MERCER                 17.0          Winter                     17.7          Winter                    16.8

Mellen                    16.9          Butternut                17.7          MERCER                 16.6

 


  

Tuesday, September 24, 2019


News FLASH!!!

MERCER ACT SCORES REMAIN “PATHETIC”

The Mercer School again remained below the two area schools and the state average with its 2018-19 ACT scores, just announced by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Mercer had a composite score of 17.0 compared with Lakeland Union’s 20.0 and Hurley’s 18.7.  The statewide average composite score for all 422 school districts was 19.6.

This marked the third consecutive year in which the Mercer School had dismal ACT composite scores – 18.4 in 2017-18 and 16.6 in 2016-17.  Similar results were posted in earlier years.

Following is a comparison of the composite scores for the three most recent years for Mercer, Lakeland Union, Hurley and Statewide.  Also following is breakdown of the scores by subjects.

COMPOSITE SCORES – YEARLY COMPARISONS

                             2018-19   2017-18   2016-17

Mercer               17.0           18.4           16.6

Lakeland           20.0           20.6           20.1

Hurley                18.7           19.5           18.5

Statewide         19.6           19.8           20.0

2018-19 ACT SCORES BY SUBJECTS

                                    Mercer     Lakeland UHS  Hurley      Statewide

Composite       17.0           20.0                    18.7           19.6

ELA (1)                 16.5           18.4                    17.0           18.0

English               16.4           19.2                    18.1           18.4

Math                  15.7           20.0                    17.8           19.4

Reading             18.1           20.1                    19.3           20.0

Science              17.2           20.0                    19.3           19.9

STEM (2)            16.7           20.3                    18.8           19.9

Writing (3)         6.2             6.3                       5.7             6.3

(1)   ELA – Combines English language arts scores

(2)  STEM – Combines science and math scores

(3)   Writing score is rated 1 to 12; for all others 36 is the highest score

  

Wednesday, September 18, 2019


Another DPI Investigation
 
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)

 

The public posting of Hohner surrendering her license does not include information linking her directly to the investigation.  However, an earlier listing on the DPI website showed that her “license status” was “under investigation”.

 

The DPI had confirmed on several earlier occasions that it was investigating the Mercer School for “test administration and scoring.”  This latest development does not indicate if the DPI has concluded its investigation or the names of persons who may be involved. 

 

Investigating irregularities at the Mercer School has kept the DPI busy.  It had earlier found that $185,465 of Community Services Fund 80 money had been misused.  That claim was settled with the school paying the DPI $124,515, plus costing about $37,000 in attorney fees.

 

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

Educator Licensing Online


Entity Number: 67974

Last Background Check Submitted:

 

License Type:
T001 - Teacher
Stage:
Lifetime License
License Number:
1590061947
Original License Date:
09/22/2017
Most Recent Application/Payment Received:
Valid From:
09/22/2017
Expires On:
License Status:
Voluntary Surrender as of 09/11/2019
Renewal Guidelines:
Valid w/ Employment & Background Check
Pending Renewal/Extension:
No
T – facts – about Mercer School Board and Administration issues and overall school mic 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.

Monday, September 9, 2019


The DPI Testing Investigation
THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG?
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 agenda for a closed session at a special School Board meeting last Wednesday contained items which appeared related to the DPI investigation.  (See MSF 9/5/19 Special School Board Meeting)

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.

The DPI’s “Educator Licensing Online” information shows the license status for the teacher involved in Friday’s incident as “under investigation”.

Any breach of test administration and scoring rules is viewed by educators everywhere as a very serious matter.   Not only does such cheating give a false sense of achievement to students aided by being given answers to test questions, but it also does a disservice to those students who follow the rules.

The Mercer School Board’s new president, Bob Davis, has said that he is committed to total transparency.  But will Mercer citizens get to hear a full report about the outcome of the DPI investigation and what steps he and Board have taken, and will take, to prevent this from ever happening again at the Mercer School?  

Thursday, September 5, 2019


A “Special” School Board Meeting
THE ON-AGAIN-OFF-AGAIN DRAMA
The Mercer School’s students and staff and the Mercer community appear to have received another reprieve – at least for now.  At a special School Board meeting Wednesday night it was agreed to extend the leave of absence of District Administrator Erik Torkelson.

This means that the almost all new School Board, which is independent of the absent administrator, and the interim administrator will continue to have the opportunity to institute much-needed reforms in the management of the school.  (See MSF “Torkelson Returns” 8/29/19)

Torkelson has been on medical leave since he had a stroke in mid-June.  Just nine days before Wednesday night’s special meeting, the Board approved a request from Torkelson to return to full-time employment on August 30.  He did not return to the school and now this puzzling request to extend his leave of absence.

The Board decision to continue Torkelson’s leave came after a two-hour long closed session. 

But also on the closed meeting agenda were two other mysterious items on which the Board took no action.  It is possible that those two issues could be related to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s investigation into the Mercer School’s ACT test administration and scoring.

The DPI has confirmed that it was conducting the investigation and reportedly has interviewed several present and former teachers and even students.  According to DPI licensing information one teacher is “under investigation”.

However, the agenda item stated that the Board was to consider “specific personnel problems or the investigation of charges against specific persons”. (Note the plural “persons”.} The agenda also stated that the Board wanted “to discuss matters of student assessment.  (ACT test results?)

The other agenda item stated that the Board wanted “to confer with legal counsel…concerning strategy to be adopted by the body with respect to litigation in which it is or is likely to become involved.”   ACT, Inc., owners of the widely used testing system which is used by the Mercer School, has been known to seek legal action against school districts which violated its testing rules.   

And if that happens, guess who could be on the hook. MERCER TAXPAYERS!