Cost per student Mercer $26,433,
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, December 1, 2020


Another Encouraging Sign


A long overdue discussion about the Mercer School’s STEP (Senior Tax Exchange Program) and the free meals for seniors was held by the School Board Monday evening.  Under the former deposed administration such a discussion would never have happened. 

Questions about the viability of the two programs were raised by several Mercer residents at the October Annual Meeting budget hearing.  Administrator Sheri Kopka and School Board member Jim Hannemann were quick to respond with a comprehensive report at Monday night’s meeting.

Both programs have been the subject of controversy over the past years for their lack of documentation and possible misuse of the taxpayer money.   In fact, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction in 2018 charged the school’s then administration with misusing $185,465.  Of that amount $145,916 was paid as salary and benefits to former Administrator Erik Torkelson and several select staff member for duties which the DPI said were falsely claimed as needed to operate the community services programs.  It appears that claim was settled by the school district for about $125,000, plus legal fees.

The Mercer STEP and free meals programs are paid for out of Community Services Fund 80 which is totally funded by Mercer taxpayers. The district's 2020-21 budget for the STEP program is $6,000 and $10,000 for the free lunches.  In 2019-20 the actual amount paid out for the STEP program was $5,690 against a budget of $6,000 and $4,222 for the meals with a budget of $15,262, the difference being because the meals program was suspended with the closing of the school in March due to Covid-19.

The STEP program benefits volunteers at the town’s Paw Shop.  Every December, anywhere from 13 to 20 volunteers have received payments of $400 each. The checks are made out to the volunteers and county treasurer and are used to reduce the recipients’ school taxes.

The program is designed to provide interaction between students and the senior volunteers. Mercer’s program was set up several years ago as a vehicle for teaching Mercer students business and commerce.  Because of a lack of student interest, the school board dropped the program.  It was subsequently reinstated by Torkelson.

Many Wisconsin school districts have STEP programs. Most make public the criteria and purposes for their programs.  Many require that the STEP volunteers perform their services in the school and under the supervision of a school staff member.  A value of the program has been cited as the interface it causes between the senior volunteers and students.

Mercer Paw Shop volunteers do not work inside the school.  However, according to Hannemann, who gave the report at Monday evening’s meeting, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has been highly complementary about Mercer’s program, even though it is conducted outside of the school.

Hannemann noted that other Mercer residents  volunteer to help in the school and that perhaps the School Board should consider expanding the STEP program to include them. 

The fate of the Mercer free meals program seems more in question.  It is intended for seniors who do not receive meals at senior centers.  Mercer’s Senior Center provides lunches on Mondays and Fridays, and the Mercer School’s program was intended to fill the gap by providing meals on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.  

Hannemann reported that the Mercer Senior Center is exploring if it can provide lunches every weekday, eliminating the need for the Mercer School to provide them.  Before the Covid-19 pandemic the free lunches program was sparsely attended, with sometimes as few as six people present.

 It appears that the Mercer free lunches program was set up at taxpayer expense as part of a patronage system which could provide Torkelson and HIS “stooge” board with support when needed.  At one point he said that the free lunches would be available for anyone – resident or not -- who wanted to come to the school for them. 

It is refreshing and encouraging that the Mercer School’s new Administrator, Sheri Kopka, and the new School Board are willing to re-examine and discuss these programs and how taxpayer money is being spent.

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