MERCER, Wis. - The Mercer School District is battling a group of residents who are upset over an increase in taxes as a result of the $300,000 levy passed Feb. 19, 2013.
According to an article on the website Blogspot, 40 residents attended a school board meeting to express their "dismay" about an increased spike in their property taxes.
The residents said they were not expecting the large tax increase.
In February, the district campaigned to replace the expiring $350,000 referendum, adding $300,000 to the tax levy.
The additional $300,000 was expected to result in an increase of $11 per $100,000 of property evaluation, however residents report increases of more than $100 and up to $500 on their taxes.
District administrator Erik Torkelson said the reason for the tax increase was because the $350,000, five-year referendum doesn't expire until the end of this current school year, causing an overlap with the old and new referendums for one year.
According to Torkelson, citizens were warned of this happening in board meetings, through direct communication and by direct mail.
"We've mailed every taxpayer a very concise, clear message as to why their taxes spiked this year," Torkelson said. "We explained it at the annual meeting in October, that it was a one-year, isolated tax increase."
The "exceptional tax increase," according to Torkelson, was "absolutely neccessary" to pay off a long-standing budget deficit that has been on the district's books for more than 10 years.
"It was a very difficult decision, but it was the right decision," he said. "And it was absolutely a critical decision, which was in the best interest of the district, and the children of this district. For those that are understanding and supportive, which is the vast majority of the people in this community, I thank them for their continued support."
Torkelson said a group of residents has spread "false and misleading" information about the referendum and tax levy.
The school district has contacted the Iron County Sheriff's Department about an alleged breach of the district's email server.
According to Torkelson, someone hacked into the server, posed as a school board member, and sent numerous emails directing people to the online blog, which included information on the referendum that Torkelson said was incorrect.
"This is a school, not a place to commit a crime," Torkelson said.
The tax levy will start in October, and for the 2014-'15 school year, and beyond, Torkelson said the figures he communicated ($11 per $100,000) during the referendum campaign will be reflected exactly how he said they would be.
"I expect to be held accountable for those figures," Torkelson said. "I used very specific figures to communicate with the taxpayers what the impact of that referendum would be. Following this year, those figures will be correct and accurate. We will hold to those numbers, and I expect to be held accountable for them when we bring that levy forward in October."
Back in February, Torkelson said the $300,000 tax levy would be used to help revitalize programs for students, including foreign languages and music.
Since then, the district has hired a music teacher and reintroduced the Spanish program.
"We've haven't had a music program in years because we had to completely eliminate it," Torkelson said. "We've had a rebirth in that program. Josh Reed came to us from South Dakota and in a few short months has completely transformed that program. It is wonderful to hear music echoing down the hallways of the Mercer School.
"We've also been fortunate enough to hire Erin Johnson, who serves dual roles, saving the taxpayers in the district money. She serves as our Spanish instructor, as well as our speech and language pathologist. She is a unique individual and a very talented lady," Torkelson said.
In the face of what Torkelson calls "bullies continuing to perpetrate ... falsehoods," he said the focus is on "bettering a great school and great community.
"This school and this community, over the last four years, have experienced an absolute renaissance," Torkelson said. "Look at the beautification projects that have taken place in this community. And you look at all the programs restored, revitalized and improved in the school district. Our efforts need to be focused on positive, continuous improvement efforts."