Economics 101, retail edition

Tom Woods:

Bernie Sanders just tweeted:

“Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillon made about $11,000/hour in compensation last year. I’d like to hear from him why he thinks his workers don’t deserve to be paid a living wage of $15/hour.”

One of my Facebook friends replied, correctly, with this:

$11,000/hr is $22,880,000 assuming 40 hrs a week.
Redistribute that to the 2,300,000 Walmart employees and you get a whopping $9.94 per employee PER YEAR. With the CEO working for free.

OK, so maybe we’re not going to get to $15/hr by stealing from the CEO, but maybe we can get there by expropriating the shareholders.

Walmart had a net income of $9,862,000,000 last year. Redistribute that to the 2,300,000 employees and you get about $2/hr. Still not enough to have cashiers making $15/hr.

And of course if investors knew you would expropriate them in this way they wouldn’t have put up the money to build Walmart and it literally would not exist.

(Now before you tell me that Walmart uses the government’s roads, or gets some hidden privilege, that’s all beside the point: you think Bernie or his followers are making subtle distinctions like that?)

People in the thread were explaining about the value of the CEO, and why this kind of Tweet is — at the very least — extremely unhelpful.

Someone responded with:

“yeah but 11,000$/ hr thats f***ing absurd”


“because the average person working at that company makes like 10$/hr. ceo’s are not worth 1000x of 1 person”

Then why do they make that much?

“good question”

Then I jumped in: “Since you can’t answer the question, is it possible that you’re not really understanding the way the economy works? Maybe it’s a little more complicated than ‘this phenomenon seems unreasonable to be, so I shall condemn it’? Why would you think the contribution of the janitor in one building is comparable to a CEO running a worldwide enterprise, making decisions that affect millions of people?”

He said that “1 person is not worth 1000x of another person,” and that the real value added comes from “the people working the actual jobs on the front line.”

A philosopher in the thread responded, “I don’t know if any human being is worth 1000x another human being. However, yes, some people’s labor is worth 10,000 times other people’s labor.”

Then I chimed in (bold to make it easier to read): My father was a forklift operator in a food warehouse. He was intelligent enough to understand that his brawn alone would have accomplished nothing. Thanks to the capital investment by capitalists, he had a forklift that vastly increased what his labor was able to contribute to the enterprise. Not to mention the organizational genius necessary to coordinate the almost incalculable number of moving parts involved in running hundreds of grocery stores.

“No one should earn that much money,” you say. That’s just prejudice.

According to you, since lots of people struggle to earn even a fraction of that, they should simply earn more and other people should earn less. Why? How? On what basis? Your personal prejudices?

If you’re so concerned about inequality, I have news for you: you yourself are in the global 1%. To most of the world, you look like that CEO looks to you. What specific steps are you taking to make yourself more equal to them?

I never got an answer about what steps he was taking. You can imagine my surprise.

It’s always about what other people should be doing with their wealth.

There’s a lot of economic ignorance out there.


In defense of the All-Star Game

The Major League Baseball All-Star Game, the oldest in major professional sports, is tonight in Washington, D.C.

My All-Star Game experience is limited to driving past Miller Park before the debacle of the 2002 All-Star Game, which ended in a tie because both teams run out of pitchers. My father went to the 1955 All-Star Game at Milwaukee County Stadium, and got to see an actual classic.

I think there is little love for all-star games, ticket sales notwithstanding, among players and fans beyond the host team and the teams of selected, or not-selected, All-Stars. There was great hue and cry in Brewerland when their current best player, Jesus Aguilar, wasn’t selected until the last-player-in fans’ vote. The Brewers have five All-Stars, a team record, and four more than they’re likely to have next year if they keep playing like they’ve played the last week.

There is, however, a defender of the All-Star Game, the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell:

In the summer of 1969, I was not at Woodstock. I was a 21-year-old counselor at a summer camp in Virginia 100 miles south of Washington. That’s how I got to the 1969 MLB All-Star Game at RFK Stadium — by a fluke.

The game was initially rained out. Some fans couldn’t change their schedules to see the makeup game the following day. The father of a camper suddenly had extra tickets. So I was picked, as the camp’s athletic director and (face it) resident baseball lunatic, to drive the boy to the game. My payment: I got to go, too!

Upper deck, left-center field, 450-plus feet from home plate. Perfect.

It was a slugfest. The five home runs, three of them by future Hall of Famers and one by local Washington Senators hero Frank Howard, looked as if they were coming right at us until gravity won and they dove beneath us, but far over the chain-link fences.

One of Willie McCovey’s two homers smashed through the face of the big Longines clock in the center field scoreboard leaving a hole (at the 5 o’clock mark) the size of a baseball. The hole stayed there for decades. The ball? Inside, I assume. Unraveled by McCovey? Gnawed by generations of RFK rodents?

To this day, 49 years later, that game — with a home run by Johnny Bench and a leaping catch by Carl Yastrzemski to rob Bench of a second one — is one of the most vivid memories of my life. Not just sports. My whole life.

Why? Not because I was going to become a sportswriter. Such a job had never crossed my mind. Back then, the All-Star Game, in person, was a knockout event.

Here’s the surprise. When it is in your town, your home ballpark, swathed in a week-long celebration, it still is. And it will be again this year — in Nationals Park.

I’ve covered 30-some All-Star Games since — many of them not very special. Plenty were lugubrious duds on TV. But every All-Star Game I’ve attended was a joy to the town where it was held. It’s a national event that becomes an excuse for a long, lovely provincial summer party that sprawls over several days.

An MLB All-Star Game, and everything that surrounds it, is far better in person than on TV. It’s a “You Had to Be There” experience.

In ’69, there was little more than the game itself. That had power because, before interleague play, many fans (including me) had never seen a single National League superstar, such as Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, play in person. And, as it turned out, no National Leaguer ever played in Washington again until 2005 when the Montreal Expos relocated here.

The All-Star Game itself is now more like a tentpole for a larger, longer five-day baseball circus and county fair. It’s a celebration, a ritual and a memory factory more than it’s a one-night contest. The game’s pageantry (and profit) has spread to include the five-day FanFest at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center starting Friday, as well as the All-Star Game itself Tuesday, the Home Run Derby on Monday and the Futures Game with hot minor leaguers Sunday.

Don’t ask me to describe MLB Assembly at District Pier on the Wharf or Play Ball Park at the Yards near Nationals Park — both open all five days. Ask Google.

But it’s all part of a benevolent plot to make it seem that your city has been invaded by baseball — everywhere and in every form — with parades, displays of memorabilia, Library of Congress symposia, autograph sessions, crowded hotel scenes with the baseball world passing through the lobbies, gala parties and whatever anybody can dream up that has balls with stitches and wooden bats.

Usually I shun “event sprawl,” a specialty of the Super Bowl. But I always find myself smiling at the annual FanFest, correctly billed as the largest interactive baseball theme park in the world. Baseball (and softball) is an affinity community that has deeper multigenerational roots than any other sport. Many come to this huge smorgasbord to bump into old friends or make new ones. The age span always feels like 3 to 103. Sure, a lot is hokey, you must buy a ticket and, if you don’t already care about baseball, FanFest probably won’t convert you. But, for me, it’s where you usually feel the pulse of the event, the sense of buildup.

At FanFests, you meet and get free autographs from players — including Hall of Famers coming to D.C., such as Bench, Dave Winfield and Gaylord Perry (dare you to ask him where he hid the jelly for his spitball), as well as ex-Nats such as Chad Cordero, Livan Hernandez, Davey Johnson, Dmitri Young and Kevin Frandsen (making sure you’re paying attention) and softball stars, too, including Jennie Finch.

What you’re also getting is a sense of the 150-year baseball continuum, from displays of long-dead greats to seeing former players of many ages as well as 10-year-olds getting their fastball timed. It heightens interest for what’s to come.

At times I think the All-Star Game is just an Am-I-Jaded-Yet meter for adults. One that usually gives back the answer for which we hoped: “No.”

Looking back at 1969, the surprise for me is that as star-studded as it seemed at the time, I didn’t appreciate half of what I was watching. Now we know that there were 20 Hall of Famers on the ’69 rosters: Mays, Aaron, Bench, Frank Robinson, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Roberto Clemente, Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks, Brooks Robinson, Juan Marichal, Tony Perez, Yastrzemski, McCovey, Ron Santo and more. Is that even possible?

Yet Bench was only 21, Jackson and Carew 23, Seaver and Carlton 24. None had yet had his first huge breakout season, though some were in the midst of it in ’69. Pete Rose (a Hall of Fame-caliber player) still had more than 3,000 hits to go, and knuckleballer Phil Niekro, then 30 and obscure, barely had 40 career wins yet finished with 318.

The trademark of the All-Star Game is that it surprises us with its pleasures — many of them in the days before the game, or in the pageantry of the game. But then it shocks us in hindsight as we look back at how much greater those players became, and how much more pleasure they provided, than we thought they possibly could at the time we first saw them together.

Last year, I got an email at my Washington Post address from a Stephen Leonard who said he wanted to settle a question about an old tall tale in his baseball-loving family. Had I really gone to the 1969 All-Star Game with his father, Will, and his brother, Biff, who was then attending Camp Whitehall? Must be a different Tom Boswell, right?

The email chain since then has gotten very long, as have the lengths to which Stephen and Biff have gone to make sure their father, now in his mid-80s, didn’t learn that I was trying to get tickets to the Home Run Derby to repay him and spend some time catching up with the family. The cat is now out of the bag.

All of us seem touched, though we barely know each other, and we’re not quite sure why. Something about 49 years between All-Star Games, memories, age and reconnection with baseball as the link. Just resuming a conversation.

The MLB All-Star Game is coming. Count the days. If you have the feel of baseball in you, you’ll be amazed how much you — and, perhaps even more important, the family and friends with you — are delighted and surprised by all the facets of this five-day feast. Likely you’ll wish it would come again soon.

Proof that the facts of life are fundamentally conservative

The headline comes from a famous quote of Margaret Thatcher before she became prime minister of Great Britain.

And so David Blaska writes in an air of feigned shock:

In “A better way to run schools,” David Leonhardt of the New York Times records that after Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago: 

New Orleans embarked on the most ambitious education overhaul in modern America. The state of Louisiana took over the system in 2005, abolished the old bureaucracy and closed nearly every school. Rather than running schools itself, the state became an overseer, hiring independent operators of public schools — that is, charter schools  —  and tracking their performance.

The charters here educate almost all public-school students, so they can’t cherry pick. And the students are overwhelmingly black and low-income … so gentrification isn’t a factor. Yet the academic progress has been remarkable.

Performance on every kind of standardized test has surged.  … Test-score gains are translating into real changes in students’ lives. High-school graduation, college attendance and college graduation have all risen.

Let’s be clear that charter schools are public schools and that voucher schools are not. But both offer parents a choice in schooling. Alternatives, competition in the market place. Not one size fits all.

In January, Israeli spies infiltrated a warehouse in Tehran and seized roughly 50,000 pages of documents and other records related to Iran’s nuclear program. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later cited the findings as a reason President Trump should abandon the 2015 nuclear deal, which he did days later.

“They make one thing clear: Despite Iranian insistence that its program was for peaceful purposes, the country had worked in the past to systematically assemble everything it needed to produce atomic weapons.” Read their report here.

The white lab coats here at the Policy Werkes (and Tanning Salon) did speed-read Dean Mosiman’s series of articles on Gun Violence (“Cycles of Trauma”) in the Wisconsin State Journal. Very well done: deeply sourced and well written. Your Squire has conversed with many of the peer support people working with the gang bangers profiled in the series. They cannot help but do good and deserve our support. Still, the Policy Werkes believes that the WI State Journal series missed the most promising strategy for young people at risk. Get to them while they are young. Middle school. By age 18, we fear, reform is more difficult.

Another takeaway from Mosiman’s series: Cops ain’t the problem. Are you getting this Dean Loumos? Social justice warriors?

Discipline, high expectations, breaking the self-imposed stereotype that to learn and obey is to act white. Quick, Democrats, shut down school choice! …

What’s this? Promoting socialism, sky-high taxes, and open borders is not going to help Democrat/Socialists trounce the GOP in November?! “The future belongs to us,” Bernie Sanders bellows to his audience. But not so fast, John Fund cautions in National Review.Overall, voters prefer capitalism, by 54% to 24%. 

What’s this? Socialist Venezuela is now considered a criminal organization, a “mafia state,” according to this expert in the New York Times. Would bombing help?

Presty the DJ for July 17

Two Beatles anniversaries of note today: The movie “Yellow Submarine” premiered in London …

… six years before John Lennon was ordered to leave the U.S. within 60 days. (He didn’t.)

Birthdays today start with pianist Vince Guaraldi. Who? The creator of the Charlie Brown theme (correct name: “Linus and Lucy”):

Continue reading “Presty the DJ for July 17”

On the air seemingly everywhere, and …

It turns out that there are a lot of people who listen to National Public Radio’s “1A.”

The list of stations that carry all, or some, of “1A,” including the Wisconsin Public Radio Ideas Network, runs from Birmingham, Ala., to Buckhannon, W.Va., the latter famous for …

… and from Concord, N.H., to Coachella, Calif., and from Miami, Fla., to Walla Walla and Yakima, Wash. It’s not on in Alaska or Hawaii, but it is on in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s on in states I’ve never been to, including Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North and South Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas (though I was on the air once in Texarkana, Texas, broadcasting an adult amateur hockey tournament), Virginia and West Virginia, and Washington state and Washington, D.C.

That doesn’t mean that if I flew to Charlotte Amalie and asked random people if they knew me because I was on NPR on WTJX (93.1 FM) back on July 12 that they wouldn’t assume I had gotten too much sun and too much rum. I was on the BBC World Service earlier this year too, so I was theoretically on worldwide, but between the Beeb and NPR I guess I have now spoken to the biggest audience(s) in my entire life this year. As I said before, had I realized the size of the potential audience, I might have been more nervous.

The show can be heard here. It was, as is usually (but not always) the case with public broadcasting, a very civil discussion. As is always the case, there were some things I wished I had said but didn’t, and some points the other two guests made that I didn’t get to respond to, but such is the way of live radio or TV.

Read the Facebook comments on the show, and you will get an interesting look at how others (and some Wisconsinites and ex-Wisconsinites) view Wisconsin. And not favorably. I find it fascinating that there are people who base their opinion about not merely where they live, their state or the U.S., but even the state of their lives on what the government is or isn’t doing and who is or isn’t in office. (This is one reason I believe conservatism, or at least its libertarian side, is vastly superior to all the leftward “isms,” because one facet of the correct way of thinking is that government should never be the be-all and end-all of anyone’s life, even if the right people, however you define that, are in charge.) Similar statements, including some of mine, can be found on 1A’s Twitter feed.

I admit I did not get a chance to read Kauffman’s book. Charlie Sykes did:

What happened in Wisconsin should be a cautionary tale for the Left in the Age of Trump. But as this book makes clear, the Left declines to be cautioned.

According to the publisher, The Fall of Wisconsin gives “the untold story behind the most shocking political upheaval in the country.” But that story has, in fact, been told repeatedly, and author Dan Kaufman adds little to those accounts. Rather than a thoughtful critique of how progressives in a state with such a rich political tradition squandered their historical advantages, what we get is a work of ideological nostalgia, written with political rage goggles. Kaufman yearns for a return to the days of Scandinavian-style social-democratic politics, which he thinks have been defaced and degraded by a deep-pocketed and malign conservative machine.

The Fall of Wisconsin is packed with the sort of stories that progressives tell one another to account for their multiple defeats. It wasn’t anything we did, they reassure themselves; it was big money, the Koch brothers, Citizens United, voter-ID laws, gerrymandering, and a vast conservative infrastructure.

Kaufman paints a dystopian picture in which conservatives such as Governor Scott Walker (very much the villain of the book) “pitted Wisconsin citizens against one another, paving the way for the decimation of laws protecting labor unions, the environment, voting rights, and public education.” The results of those Republican victories, he writes, have been “disastrous” for just about everyone and everything, from the middle class to the environment, children, and small animals.

How awful — except that I live in Wisconsin and I can testify that, contra the title of this book, it has not “fallen.” Actually, it’s quite nice here, especially during our six weeks or so of summer. Despite his depiction of Wisconsin as a reactionary hellhole, the unemployment rate here is 2.9 percent, well below the national average; both the labor force and wages are growing; everyone in poverty is covered under Medicaid; the state has the ninth-best high-school-graduation rate in the country, and school spending is on the rise; and the state’s GDP has grown faster than that of neighboring Minnesota.

But I can certainly understand why the author and his allies on the left are rending their garments over what has happened here. Few states have flipped more decisively from blue to red, and the transformation of the state’s politics from progressivism to conservative dominance has been traumatic and disorienting.

Kaufman takes great pains to retell the story of Wisconsin’s progressive glory days and its role in pioneering progressive legislation. Wisconsin was the first state to enact an unemployment-
insurance program, the first to grant collective-bargaining rights to municipal employees, and one of the first to enact a progressive income tax. “Indeed,” he recalls, “much of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, including the Social Security Act, was drafted by Wisconsinites loyal to what is called the Wisconsin Idea.”

But his history is truncated and selective, more a morality play than an attempt to chronicle the state’s idiosyncratic political history. Kaufman’s narrative sees Wisconsin locked in a decades-long battle over the question posed by its iconic former governor “Fighting” Bob La Follette: “Who shall rule — wealth or man?” In Kaufman’s telling, progressive Wisconsin Republicanism extended through the 1960s. The turning point, he writes, was the Supreme Court’s decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which removed many limits on campaign spending. From that point on, writes Kaufman, “Wisconsin’s politics started becoming more like the politics of other states.”

This fits into his preferred narrative of wealth versus people, but the result is that he glosses over quite a bit of history, including the career of Wisconsin’s red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy. Similarly, former governor Tommy Thompson, who was elected to four terms and compiled an impressive reformist record, barely rates a mention. Nor does he spend much time analyzing the rise of Walker, suggesting at one point that he “attracted little notice during his time in the state assembly,” when in fact he was a ubiquitous presence in the local media. Kaufman devotes only a single paragraph to Walker’s improbable election as county executive in the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee County after a pension scandal that implicated both the unions and local Democratic politicians.

And he has little to say about Walker’s deeply unpopular Democratic predecessor, Jim Doyle, except to blame the bad economy for “forcing” Doyle to ram through massive tax hikes in the midst of the financial crisis after repeatedly promising not to do so.

But Kaufman does have a great deal to say about the reactionary forces that conspired to “decimate” Wisconsin. Much of his book is devoted to documenting the “vast infrastructure conservatives [have] created over the past forty-five years,” including groups such as the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity. At the center of that conspiracy in Wisconsin sat the Bradley Foundation, which “distributes tens of millions of dollars in grants to think tanks, litigation centers, opposition research firms and other organizations promoting a spectrum of conservative causes such as Voter ID laws, school vouchers, the curtailing of safety net programs, and anti-union measures like right-to-work laws.” (Full disclosure: My wife formerly worked at the Bradley Foundation as director of community programs.)

Kaufman is especially troubled by the network of conservative think tanks clustered around the State Policy Network and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which allowed conservatives to share ideas and model legislation with legislators around the country. Kaufman struggles to portray the policy initiatives as sinister, highlighting, for example, the group’s support for a “Special Needs Scholarship Program Act,” which gave children with disabilities scholarships to attend schools of their choice. He quotes one Wisconsin legislator describing the ALEC-backed legislation that created education-savings accounts as “the death of public education.” You get the idea.

Not surprisingly, much of Kaufman’s account centers on the battles over Act 10, Walker’s proposal to limit the collective-bargaining powers of public employees. His account of the mass protests is nothing if not romantic, quoting speculation that the mass protests were a sign that Wisconsin was becoming the “Tunisia of collective bargaining rights” (a reference to the Arab Spring, which was then breaking out in the Middle East).

In his telling, the protesters were passionate, idealistic, and not at all to blame for their failure or subsequent electoral defeats. Reading Kaufman’s book, one would have no idea that in fact the protests backfired by alienating voters across the state.

Early polling suggested that support for Walker’s reform was soft, at best. But public opinion began to turn as the protests escalated. Demonstrators occupied and trashed the state capitol and marched on Walker’s family home in Wauwatosa, where his elderly parents lived. Others, dressed as zombies, disrupted a ceremony to honor participants in the Special Olympics. Death threats and obscene letters became commonplace, and the language of Walker’s critics was especially toxic. During one of the protests in Madison in 2011, a video captured one demonstrator repeatedly shouting the F-word at a 14-year-old girl who was speaking at a pro-Walker rally. On the floor of the state assembly a Democratic state representative turned to a female Republican colleague and shouted, “You are f***ing dead!” A progressive talk-show host mocked the state’s female lieutenant governor for having colon cancer and suggested she had gotten elected only because she had performed oral sex on talk-show hosts.

Readers won’t find any of that in Kaufman’s sanitized account and, as a result, will probably have a hard time understanding why Walker went on to be reelected twice while the GOP strengthened its hold on the legislature.

But perhaps the most revealing aspect of The Fall of Wisconsin is Kaufman’s choice of Randy Bryce as the hero. Often known as the “Iron Stache,” Bryce is an ironworker and union activist who has become something of a media/Hollywood/progressive celebrity for launching a bid to unseat U.S. House speaker Paul Ryan before Ryan announced his retirement. As it happens, even though Bryce is locally known as something of an Internet troll, perennial losing candidate, and deadbeat, Kaufman has been touting the Stache for years, including a long article featuring him in The New York Times Magazine in 2015. Even on the left, there have been growing misgivings about Bryce, for example a piece in Vice titled: “Democrats Bet Big on ‘Iron Stache.’ They May Have Made a Mistake.”

The article noted that “Bryce is perhaps more politically vulnerable than his liberal fans realize,” citing a series of failed previous campaigns and a tangled personal backstory that includes unpaid debts and multiple arrests, including a DUI. Despite that, he loaned his failed state-senate campaign $5,000 and, according to the New York Times, bought Twitter followers in 2015. He’s been dogged by reports about his offensive tweets (“If you look up the word succubus, you’ll see Ivanka Trump”) and was caught claiming nonexistent endorsements.

But Dan Kaufman has seen the future, and it is more social democracy and more Stache. “The support for Bryce,” Kaufman enthuses, “was a sign of a broader awakening.”

Perhaps not.

Two points I made more than once on the show. Coming into the 2010 election Wisconsin had a Democratic governor, Democratic-controlled Legislature, and only one Republican statewide official. All of that exactly reversed in the 2010 election, the GOP has controlled the governor’s, attorney general’s and state treasurer’s offices and, except for a few months around Recallarama, both houses of the state Legislature. Voters have four chances — the 2012 recall election and the 2012, 2014 and 2016 elections — to change that, and they have declined to do so.

Kaufman and others on his side will blame gerrymandering (which helped Walker how?), the Evil Koch Brothers, other big campaign money (which is the fault of excessive government power, which means excessive stakes in elections and the absolute need to do whatever it takes to win) or whatever boogeyman the left likes. The fact is that a majority of Wisconsin voters to this point have approved of what Walker and Republicans have done in Wisconsin, and a majority of Wisconsin voters to this point have not felt the need to restore power to Democrats. Like it or not, that is reality. And trying to shame voters for their incorrect (in the leftward opinion) views or past votes isn’t likely to make them vote correctly (in the leftward opinion) in the next election(s).

Great moments in school governance … not

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports:

One way to make enemies in a small-town school district, it turns out, is to start sniffing around its finances.

Christa Reinert was hardly welcomed when she joined the Mercer School Board in 2016. She’d run, at least partly, in protest after two girls basketball coaches — one a sitting School Board member at the time — allowed players to watch the sexploitation flick “Fifty Shades of Grey” on a road trip.

But things got worse, she says, when she started asking questions:

Why, for example, were board members approving staff contracts they’d never seen?

Why was the district administrator’s salary higher than his contract stipulated?

And why had the community recreation fund in this tiny Northwoods district — with 151 students in a single K-12 school — ballooned in the years after the administrator’s arrival from about $3,000 a year to more than $200,000 on average over the last seven years.

District Administrator Erik Torkelson and School Board members — one of them his mother-in-law — were openly hostile, she said. Torkelson directed his staff to stop providing her documents without an open records request and payment upfront.

So Reinert took her concerns to the state Department of Public Instruction.

DPI issued a finding late last month that the Mercer School District inappropriately spent about $175,000 from its community programs and services account — otherwise known as “Fund 80” — over the 2015-’16 and 2016-’17 school years. Most of that was used to boost wages and benefits for a small group of employees, including Torkelson, without adequate documentation, according to the letter.

DPI also admonished board members for voting on bonuses for administrators, including $11,000 for Torkelson, in closed session.

As a result, the department has issued a “revenue limit adjustment” for an equal amount, meaning the Mercer board will have to slash spending or tap its reserves to balance its 2018-’19 budget. And a second hit could follow if it doesn’t change its practices for the coming school year, according to the state.

“They still have time to demonstrate … that their funds were spent properly. But they did not provide that (documentation) to us,”  DPI spokesman Thomas McCarthy said.

Torkelson and board President Noel Brandt have declined repeated requests for interviews over the last week. But Torkelson said in an email to the Journal Sentinel that he and the district’s attorneys “vehemently disagree” with the agency’s findings and will be filing an appeal.

Reinert said she takes no satisfaction in the ruling.

“At this point, it’s going to hurt the kids in the school,” said Reinert, who owns Flambeau Flowage Sports and the adjacent Looney Beans Coffee shops on Highway 51, the main drag through this Iron County town of about 1,400.

“They’re blaming this on me,” she said of Torkelson and his supporters on the board. “But I didn’t take the money. I didn’t pay people over contract. I didn’t approve any of that,” she said. “I was the one questioning it over the last two years, because it sounded exorbitant to me.”

The DPI probe focused on how the tiny school district spent its Fund 80 dollars for recreation including pickleball and community programming over the two years. Torkelson said in a January interview that the district offers a broad array of programming — child care, senior meals, yoga, art and music classes — that have “transformed the culture of our district.”

Critics dismiss it as a handful of sparsely attended classes and a “walking track” through the halls of the school.

The DPI ruling is the latest turn in an ongoing community squabble that appears to have begun with a controversial school referendum in 2013.

Mercer is considered a property-rich school district, one of a number of districts in resort communities around the state where high-end vacation homes skew the property values, effectively reducing their access to state dollars.

Most of its $3.5 million annual budget comes from local taxpayers, who can be sensitive to spikes in their property tax bills. And many revolted when a 2013 referendum, which was expected to raise taxes by $11 per $100,000 in home value, came in at more than 10 times that amount.

Since then, a small group of residents has been raising concerns about the school district at meetings and online. Complaints have run the gamut, from grade inflation and declining ACT scores to Torkelson’s relationship with the School Board and its financial operations.

Of keen interest has been Torkelson’s compensation. Torkelson was paid about $136,000 last year, though his contract was for about $98,000, according to his critics. He said he effectively buys back some of his benefits, including insurance and unused vacation days, but Reinert and others say that should total no more than $114,000.

And things could get heated. In 2014, a local blogger, Richard Thiede, sued the district for suggesting he was tied to a supposed hacking of the district’s email system. Reinert was slapped with a restraining order over the “Fifty Shades” fracas. Late last year, the board voted to consider legal action against anyone, including Reinert, who forwarded an email letter critical of the district.

“People have been intimidated, and there’s been outright vandalism of people critical of the School Board. Metal shards have been put in tires; I had it happen twice,” said Richard Kemplin, a local activist and Reinert ally who records board meetings.

When board critic Paul Juske ran against Kelly Kohegyi, Torkelson’s mother-in-law, vandals “smashed his mailbox, stole his campaign signs, sent out an illegal flyer,” Kemplin said. “The GAB found it violated election laws, but we couldn’t get the DA to prosecute.”

Tensions boiled over at the October 2017 annual meeting when resident Rick Duley tried to discuss what he called the district’s “pathetic” ACT scores. Shouting ensued. Brandt rose from his seat to confront him, and they were separated by Iron County sheriff’s deputies, who’d been called by Torkelson earlier because another resident was “becoming agitated.”

No charges were filed; Iron County District Attorney Matthew Tingstad said nothing in the deputies’ reports rose to the level of a crime.

Reinert and Duley, as well as one of the deputies, tried to obtain the district’s video of the meeting, but were not successful.

Months later, then-President Deanna Pierpont told the Journal Sentinel that she had erased it, and that Mercer no longer records its meetings.

“I didn’t like what I saw. … People in the audience were yelling. Students were there. … I just felt that I didn’t want that out on the website.”

Reinert was stunned when she heard, but not entirely surprised.

“Unbelievable. I was afraid they were going to do that,” Reinert said. “It’s illegal. You can’t just get rid of documentation of a public meeting.”

Reinert won’t say she feels vindicated by the DPI letter. But she does think it explains why she wasn’t welcomed by her colleagues on the board.

“They didn’t just dislike me. I got along with everyone at the school until the ‘Fifty Shades,’ ” she said. “They didn’t want me on the board … because I wasn’t complacent. I wasn’t going to go along with the status quo.”

This looks to me like a district administrator who needs to find a different employer, and a school board that needs several members removed from office.


Presty the DJ for July 15

Today in 1963, Paul McCartney was fined 17 pounds for speeding. I’d suggest that that may have been the inspiration for his Wings song “Hell on Wheels,” except that the correct title is actually “Helen Wheels,” supposedly a song about his Land Rover:

Imagine having tickets to this concert at the Anaheim Civic Center today in 1967:

Today in 1984, John Lennon released “I’m Stepping Out.” The fact that Lennon stepped out of planet Earth at the hands of assassin Mark David Chapman 3½ years before this song was released was immaterial.

Continue reading “Presty the DJ for July 15”

Presty the DJ for July 14

This being Bastille Day, it seems appropriate to bring you some French rock music. (Despite my 2.5 years of middle school and four years of high school French, I understand none of the words.)

Outside of France, today in 1967, the Who opened the U.S. tour of … Herman’s Hermits.

Today in 1986, Paul McCartney released his “Press” album:

Other than Woody Guthrie, who was not a member of the rock or pop music worlds, the only birthday of today is Jos Zoomer, drummer for Vandenberg:

Today in 1984, Philippe Wynne, former member of the Spinners, died of a heart attack while performing in Oakland: