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.
$175,000 claw back
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.
Large, high spending districts merit attention as well.