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.