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

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. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Mercer School Board Meetings
If you think the Mercer School Board meetings are too long with too much discussion, think back a few years when most of the school’s business was conducted in secret and the public had no chance of knowing how their tax dollars were being misspent.

Back then school board meetings would usually last no more than 20 to 30 minutes, and motions were passed with absolutely no discussion.  As an example of the contrast, last night’s meeting ran two hours and 20 minutes.  Issues important to the management of the school and the education of Mercer’s children are now discussed in the open and in detail.  (Zoom into a meeting and learn for yourself.)

At Monday night’s meeting the School Board and Administrator Sheri Kopka took up such weighty issues as the Mercer School’s reopening plan and the status of fall sports.  Kopka also submitted a preliminary budget and said that the school district expects to have a balanced budget for 2020-21 if state funding remains normal.

She said that it was originally thought that the district would have to dip into the fund balance last year by as much as $300,000 but that it only had to use $100,000.  This year-end fund balance should be $400,000, she added. 

Under the former administration no one, including even some school board members, would normally see the budget until the school district’s annual meeting in late October when it was up for final approval.

Kopka outlined school district’s detail plan for resuming classes this fall and the board approved the plan.  It covered everything from classroom and virtual learning, busing, student lunches, visitors, treatment of ill children, and the teaching of hygiene practices to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus.  The children and parents will be given the option of returning to a normal five-day school week with the practice of social distancing and the option to wearing face coverings, which will be encouraged.  (Kopka may want to rethink the optional wearing of face masks since the number of Covid-19 cases in Iron County is rapidly rising.) They may also choose to attend classes by virtual study on-line at home.  Gatherings such as fund raisers will not occur.      

School Board President Bob Davis said that it will be “nice to get some normalcy.”   The school’s reopening plan will be widely circulated to the parents and community residents, Davis added.

The fall football, volleyball and cross county sports programs were discussed in detail with no final decision being made.  It was left up to Kopka to work out a plan with Athletic Director Adam Miller and recommend it to the school board for approval or disapproval at its next regular meeting on August 24.

Although the board had discussed the fall sports program at its last two meetings, it was decided Monday night that those discussions probably should not have occurred because it is the district administrator’s responsibility to work out a plan with her staff and submit her recommendations to the board.

Athletic Director Adam Miller and Coach Matt Schoeneman went into detail at Monday night’s meeting and presented a number of scenarios for resuming fall sports.  They reported on what other school districts are doing and the dates for the possible startup of the football, volleyball, and cross-country programs. 

Davis said that sports is high on his priority list but that the school needs to find a balance which allows for playing sports while focusing on the academic side.  He said that he would “feel very badly it we had to shut down the school if something happened” on the sports side.

Meetings under Davis and the present school board are in direct contrast to the years when Deanna Pierpont and Kelly Kohegyi presided over puppet boards.  Today community input is encouraged.  Back then, if anyone dared to ask a question, they were often ridiculed or embarrassed.  Or they you might even be removed from the meeting by a deputy sheriff, as Kohegyi once ordered.

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Loon Day Controversy
The Mercer Town Board – at least three of the five members – appears to favor money versus the health and safety of community members.  At least it appears that way based on a vote taken at a Friday special Town Board meeting called for “Discussion/Possible Action—Loon Day”.

The three, Chairman John Sendra, Eric Snow and Mike Lambert, voted down a resolution which would have prevented the Mercer Chamber of Commerce from using town property for the August 5 Loon Day because of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic. The motion was made by Town Board member Vic Ouimette and seconded by Opal Roberts.  

Ouimette made a strong case for not holding this year’s Loon Day festivities, saying that many area communities have cancelled their popular events in the interest of the health and safety of their residents.  He cited the cancelling of Cranfest in Eagle River, Applefest in Bayfield, Hodag Country Music Fest in Rhinelander, and Musky Days in Boulder Junction. (Ouimette did not mention the cancelling of Milwaukee’s Summerfest.)   Many churches have quit having face-to-face services and now hold only virtual services, he added.

“These events have obvious significant impact on these communities, but the chambers and boards have felt that the health, safety and welfare of their communities are more important in the long run than the economic gain in the short run,” Ouimette said.  He also said that he was “reluctant in making the motion because he was fully aware of the economic importance of these events to the local economy”.  Ouimette had been in business for over 50 years and has served as president of the Mercer and Minocqua Chambers of Commerce.

The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Iron County has been rapidly rising from just eight two weeks ago to 42 Thursday.

The Mercer Area Chamber of Commerce, which voted on Tuesday to proceed with Loon Day, said that it is taking steps to “provide a safe and fun Loon Day on August 5, 2020”.  Among its suggestions are that face masks are strongly encouraged, six feet distances between each vendor will be required, traffic flow will be guided in one way, and no performances will be held.

Sendra made it appear that there was strong community support for holding Loon Day, although the Town Board had received 24 letters (Ouimette received an additional six) and all but one wanted the event cancelled.  Some business owners even suggested that the event be cancelled and said that would not be open that day.  Mercer citizens have commented that proceeding with this year’s Loon Day was “loonacy” and “absolute insanity”.

Sendra rambled through a series of politically motivated comments which played down the dangers of the Covid-19 pandemic and stressed the importance of the money it brings in to local businesses.  He manages the Cranberry Inn and Motel, which are businesses that will profit from the crowd Loon Day annually attracts.

He and Snow, whose parents own Snow’s Family Market and gas station – other businesses which will benefit -- probably should have abstained from voting on the motion because of conflicts of interest.   But they did not.

Sendra also suggested that the correspondence and comments received from well-meaning citizens not wanting the event to proceed appeared to be orchestrated by a single source because of the similarity of word choices.  He discredited the scientists who have uniformly and consistently warned of the extreme dangers of the disease, and even made fun of the poor pitch at baseball’s opening day game by the nation’s leading health expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

We probably should have expected such nonsense from Sendra as the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths nationwide continue to set new daily records.


Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Mercer Is Not Immune

While the Mercer School Board and Administrator Sheri Kopka are conscientiously looking for ways to safely reopen the school this fall, the Mercer Chamber of Commerce appears to have taken a different position about the dangers of the Covid-19 virus.  The Chamber agreed on Tuesday to go ahead with Loon Day festivities on August 5 even though virus cases in Iron County have risen to 33 with one death (37 cases by Wednesday afternoon, 42 by Thurday).

But the Mercer Town Board may have the final say of whether to allow Loon Day festivities to proceed at a risk to the safety of town residents and visitors.  The Town Board will decide Friday if it has the authority to not allow the Chamber to use town streets and property for the event.

It would seem that the Town Board does have that authority since it requires permits and fees for using the Carow park pavilion, the community center, and the town hall.

Medical authorities worldwide are advising against huge gatherings of people which, of course, Loon Day always attracts. They say that social distancing of least six feet and wearing face masks are essential ways to reduce the spread of the deadly disease. 

An Iron County Health Department spokesperson told a Mercer business owner that “having any large gatherings regardless of being outside is an absolute NO”.

Many organizations have postponed or cancelled popular events, such as the Wisconsin and Iron County Fairs, Milwaukee’s Summerfest, Rhinelander’s Hodag Days, the Tomahawk Fall Ride, professional sports, the Olympics, and local service organization related fund raisers.

There is no doubt that many Mercer merchants have been hurt financially by the virus and would benefit from the huge crowd Loon Day attracts.  However, some merchants have said that they will stay closed to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.

One business owner said she spoke to six other business owners who said they would stay closed and that “they were not supportive of  the Chamber and Town Board when they proceeded with the 4th of July parade, including throwing candy (insanity), and the firework display for the danger it posed to the community and visitors”.

One Mercer citizen wrote to the Town Board saying that it was in the town's best interests to cancel or postpone this year’s Loon Day festivities.  “ I realize that this adds another economic and social hardship on the community but in the short to medium term health interests of the Mercer and Iron County population, cancellation of the August event is the prudent and responsible thing to do,” he said.

“I cannot believe that Mercer is proceeding with Loon Days,” said another prominent person. “It is always is the biggest money-maker of the year, but I hope ‘loonacy’ will not prevail.”

It is now up to the Town Board if it will allow “loonacy” to prevail.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Mercer School Board Acts

The Mercer School District has a new administrator – Sheri Lynn Kopka.  She was given the position at a July 13 special Mercer School Board meeting.

Kopka was named interim administrator shortly after former administrator Erik Torkelson was placed on medical leave in June 2019.  Torkelson remained on medical leave until this last June 22 when he resigned “for purposes of retirement”.  He probably would have been fired anyway because the new board appeared to be looking for ways to terminate him.

Kopka’s contract will run through June 30, 2022, with an annual salary of $90,000 plus benefits.

Since taking over in 2019, Ms. Kopka has had the difficult task working with the new school board to clean up the administrative and misspending mess left behind by Torkelson.  Also, she had the difficult responsibility of planning and implementing a virtual educational program for Mercer’s 145 students after the school closed in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The four school board members at the July 13 meeting were unanimous in their praise for the job Kopka has been doing.   Board President Bob Davis and board member Jim Hannemann noted that the board had looked at potential candidates when Torkelson was placed on medical leave and that board was fortunate to find someone (Kopka) well qualified within the district.

Board member Sue Loth described Kopka as “an extremely qualified, hardworking, nose-to-the-ground type of person”.  “We are very lucky to have her,” Loth said.  Board member Jeff Nehring added, “Her performance has been good.”

Before being named interim administrator Kopka was the school’s science teacher.  When given the interim position she already had a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction license as an administrator.   

Kopka’s predecessor Torkelson was hired in July 2011, with no experience as an administrator and at a starting salary of $98,000 plus about $30,000 in benefits, by his then future mother-in-law and School Board President Kelly Kohegyi and her cronies, Deanna Pierpont, and Denise Thompson.  As the school’s academic performance plummeted to the very bottom position of the state’s 422 school districts, his minions raised his pay to $113,500.   Nevertheless, Torkelson somehow managed to pay himself more than $150,000 in most years.

Kopka has a tough job ahead of her, but the school cannot go anywhere by up.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Good for a Laugh

The loud  cheering that was heard coming from many Mercer homes when the announcement was made at the June 22 School Board Zoom meeting that former Administrator Erik Torkelson had resigned was almost drowned out by the laughter when the contents of his resignation letter was read.

“I am PROUD of all we have accomplished,” read the laughable part of Torkelson’s letter.

Does this mean that he is proud of the Mercer School’s abysmal academic records?  Under his leadership the school was at or very near the bottom of the 421 Wisconsin school districts with its Department of Public Instruction’s School Report Card scores.   Mercer was the only school in the state for the 2018-19 school year with a report card score of 66.8, “meets no expectations”, and for the previous two years its scores “met few expectations”.  

Or is he proud the school’s ACT composite scores, which after he became administrator in 2011 were consistently well below the state’s averages of about 20 to 21?  Mercer’s composite ACT score was a miserable 16.6 for 2016-17 and 18.4 and 17 for the next two years.   

Could he be proud of the DPI investigation into teacher test cheating which resulted in two Mercer teachers surrendering their licenses?

And what about the DPI investigation into his misuse of $185,465 of Community Services Fund 80, which cost the district about $125,000, including legal fees, to settle?  That investigation was for just two years and did not involve the other years of Torkelson’s reign when huge amounts of Fund 80 money was spent on dodgy services. 

Could he be proud of the nationwide notoriety Mercer received when a teacher and school board member showed the sexually explicit movie Fifty Shades of Grey to young Mercer schoolgirls?  The print, broadcast and social media were saturated with telling how the decadent incident unfolded.

Perhaps Torkelson is proud of the Iron County Circuit Court verdict in which the judge ruled that he pay $5,340 in penalties, attorney fees and court costs for violating the law by not producing a public record, which was part of the faked hacking scheme. 

Instead of saying he was “proud” of what was accomplished, Torkelson should have apologized for failing the students, parents, staff and Mercer community.

Monday, June 22, 2020

A Long-Awaited Action
The day many Mercer residents had hoped for arrived at 8:30 p.m. on Monday, June 22, 2020, when Mercer School Board President Bob Davis announced that Administrator Erik Torkelson had resigned.
Torkelson’s eight-year reign of mismanagement and misspending ended after a one hour and twenty-five-minute closed session of the board.  Details of the resignation were not announced except that Davis read a brief letter from Torkelson saying that he was resigning “for purposes of retirement”. 

The long-awaited Mercer School Board action came at a closed session “to discuss administrator leave status, and to potentially take action regarding same.”  The School Board had held numerous earlier closed sessions to discuss Torkelson’s leave status, but no action was taken.

Torkelson was placed on medical leave last June, and the board apparently had been wrestling with the problem ever since of how to terminate him. 

After Torkelson was placed on medical leave, it became clear to the school board, four of the five members of which were not controlled by him, that he had to go.  The composition of the board began to change with the April 7 election and with earlier elections and events. 

The board which Torkelson had controlled had been decimated one-by-one.

The final member of the Torkelson's minions, Deanna Pierpont, was soundly defeated in her bid to be voted back on the board in the April 7 election.  Another Torkelson crony, Micki Pierce-Holmstrom, saw the writing on the wall and chose not to seek reelection in the April 7 election.

Of the other members of Torkelson's babal, his mother-in-law, Kelly Kohegyi, and Denise Thompson, were voted off the board in earlier elections. The fifth member, Noel Brandt, resigned from the board when he moved out of town.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Torkelson’s Contract – Part 3


One major misunderstanding about the employment contract of deposed Mercer School District Administrator Erik Torkelson is that it gives him the job for life.  Well, not quite, although the term limits of his contract are contrary to state law. 

First, we need to know that Torkelson’s contract was a “sweetheart” deal signed on February 22, 2011, by his future mother-in-law and then school board President Kelly Kohegyi and her cronies Treasurer Deanna Pierpont, and Clerk Denise Thompson.  In subsequent years, Kohegyi, Pierpont, Thompson, Micki Holmstrom and Noel Brandt became Torkelson’s protectors and never once challenged his autocratic rule.  

Torkelson had no prior experience as an administrator but was given a lucrative salary of $98,000 plus overly generous benefits of about $30,000.

Torkelson’s absurd contract is for an “automatic and continuous term” and ending only after “two years from the date the school board votes to stop the contract from continuing on such automatic and continuous basis”. 

Can you imagine someone being fired from a position and then being allowed to stay on the job for another two years?

The Wisconsin legislature did not provide for automatic and continuous terms when it approved Statute 118.24.  That statute clearly states that an administrator’s contract “may not exceed two years” but allows “one or more extensions of one year each”.  Torkelson’s school board did not limit his contract to two years and never even considered one-year extensions.

Wisconsin Statute 118.24 also provides for a method for terminating a school district administrator.  The school board must give notice that it intends to not renew the contract at least five months before the expiration of a contract.  After the five months and a private or public hearing, if requested, the administrator would be out. 

So, which is it?  If and when the board finally votes to terminate him, does he have two years left on his contract or only five months?   The board can and should have that vote but the resulting confusing could tie things up in a lengthy and expensive dispute.

Three of Torkelson’s minions, Kohegyi, Pierpont and Holmstrom, signed a new contract on July 27, 2017, for a two-year term beginning retroactively to July 1, 2017.  But, again, the new contract did not limit his term to two years as required by law.  The contract provided for an increase in Torkelson’s annual salary from $98,000 to $113,500.  The trio approved the pay raise at a June 26, 2017, school board meeting.  Christa Reinert, a board member at the time and a strong advocate for honesty and transparency, which was then non-existent, voted against the pay raise. 

Nevertheless, Torkelson went on to draft a new contract which included the new salary but also made other changes.  This would have required that the new contract be presented to the full board for approval, which was not done and, therefore, is probably invalid. 

Torkelson’s trio voted to raise his pay to $113,500 from $98,000 even though he was being investigated for the misuse of Community Service Fund 80 money, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction was conducting an investigation into Mercer School teacher test cheating (two teachers subsequently surrendered their licenses), the school district ranked at or near the bottom of all 422 state school districts with the DPI School Report Card score, the school’s ACT composite scores had been consistently  well below state averages, and that he was already taking home salary and benefits much more than his contract allowed, in most years in excess of $150,000. 
After Torkelson went on medical leave in June 2019, the school district’s long-term disability insurance carrier began paying him 90% of his $98,000 annual salary, or $88,200 ($102,150 if it accepted $113,500 as his base pay).  Should the insurance company determine that he is no longer disabled and discontinues his payments, the school district could be on the hook for paying him a full salary, unless it finds a way to terminate him. 

Had Torkelson’s “board of stooges” acted responsibly and abided by their sworn oaths of office, the current school board would not be in the predicament it is in by trying to correct a very bad situation.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Torkelson’s Contract -- Part 2


“A fifth grader could have done a better job,” was the way an experienced attorney described the employment contract of deposed Mercer School District Administrator Erik Torkelson.

“In a legal writing class, the contract would get a D- at best,” he went on to say.  “For starters, the contract assigns supervisory responsibility to the District Administrator who is, presumably, the subject of the Administrator’s Contract.  However, the contract says that Torkelson “will assume the duties of District Superintendent”, although the only reference to ”superintendent” in the state statutes on education is to the state superintendent.

Another glaring contradictory statement in the contract says: “Mr. Torkelson  shall perform such other duties, services or obligations as from time to time may be assigned by the District Administrator.”

So, what was Torkelson – the District Administrator, District Superintendent or both?  Does this mean that he is to assign duties to himself and the school board has no supervisory role?

An attempt was made to correct some of the faux pas contained in the July 2011 contract with a new contract in July 2017.  However, the validity of the 2017 contract is in question because it was never presented to or received the required approval of the full board.  (More on that in Part 3.)

Other major parts of the contract strongly suggest that it had no legal input and was an amateurish attempt to make it look like it had.  For instance, the contract also says the “the renewal or non-renewal of this agreement shall follow the procedures set forth in Section 118.243, Wis. Stats.”  But there is no Wisconsin Statute 118.243.

If Torkelson had meant it to read Section 118.24, which does exist, then the procedures for renewal or non-renewal as stated in paragraph two of his agreement directly contradicts what is in 118.24.  

A couple of other conditions of the contract required that Torkelson obtain a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction administrator’s license, which he did, and expressed a desire that he move into the school district, which he never did.  The provision that he be required to live in the school district was removed from the 2017 contract.

A ”Sweetheart” Deal.  Part 3 coming up.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Torkelson’s Contract – Part 1


A recent exchange of comments in Mercer School Facts displayed that there is a good amount of confusion and lack of knowledge about the employment contract of Administrator Erik Torkelson.   

This interest has been prompted by the new Mercer School Board’s apparent attempt to terminate Torkelson, who has been on medical leave since last June.  Since then the board has delved into the school’s financial and academic records, apparently leading to the realization that Torkelson must not be allowed back in the school.  The board named as an interim administrator, Sheri Kopka, to help correct many of the wrongs created during Torkelson’s eight-year reign of mismanagement.  And they have been making progress.

But the troubling problem remains:  How do they terminate Torkelson?  Complicating the issue is that firing a person while on medical leave could expose the school district to a discrimination lawsuit because it might appear the person is being terminated due to a medical condition.

Of course, this is not the case with Torkelson, who should have been terminated years ago for mismanaging the education of the children and for unaccounted spending, including paying himself far more than the terms of his contract.

Torkelson was hired in 2011 by his then future mother-in-law and school board President Kelly Kohegyi, without any experience as an administrator.  He was given an overly generous annual salary of $98,000, plus about $30,000 in benefits.

Somehow, he managed to pay himself over $150,000 in most subsequent years without any explanation and without being questioned by a school board which he controlled.  Then, too, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction earlier ruled that Torkelson had misspent $185,465 of Fund 80 money in two years.  It did not investigate the other six years of Torkelson’s reign. 
The last of Torkelson’s minions. Micki Holmstrom, left the school board this last April, and one of his longtime supporters, former board President Deanna Pierpont, was rejected by Mercer voters in her bid to be elected back on the board, also this last April.  His mother-in-law, Kelly Kohegyi, and another minion, Denise Thompson, were voted off the board in earlier elections. 

So, what is in the contract?  Part 2 coming up.


IT IS HEREBY AGR.EED by and between the Board of Education of the School District of Mercer (Board or District) and Erik Torkelson, that the Board does hereby employ Erik Torkelson in the position as stated below. 

The School Board of the Mercer School District (hereinafter referred to as the Board) and Erik Torkelson agree to the following contract for the position of Superintendent. This contract is for an automatic and continuous term, beginning on July 1, 2011, and ending two (2) years from the date the school board votes to stop the contract from continuing on such automatic and continuous basis. For purposed of salary and benefits increases, each July 1st is designated as the anniversary date of the contract. 

Mr. Torkelson will assume the position of District Superintendent beginning July 1, 2011 provided Mr, Torkelson has obtained appropriate licensure and successfully carried out his job duties and responsibilities. This contract shall cover twelve (12) months/260 days per year under a schedule approved by the School District of Mercer. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2020