MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Next Tuesday, a record number of Minnesota school districts will ask voters to pay more taxes to cover the cost of new buildings and better technology. Some 68 school districts will vote on building bond or capitol levy requests.
For years, people working to defeat similar campaigns have turned to the same consultant in Iowa for help.
Paul Dorr has strong feelings about public schools. He has worked in a long list of Minnesota cities. But even some who pay for Dorr’s help distance themselves from his message.
Considered one of the fastest-growing school districts in the state, South Washington County schools have some wear and tear.
Mike Vogel, the assistant to the superintendent for operations, led WCCO on a tour of Oltman Middle School.
“Our goal would be to replace the cafeteria with an above-ground cafeteria as part of the renovation process,” Vogel said.
The wish list is only getting longer as projections put 2,000 new kids in the district in the next decade.
“Which would mean kids would probably start eating about 10:30 in the morning. We wouldn’t get through serving lunch until 1 or 1:30 in the afternoon,” Vogel said.
Voters will decide if they want to pay for the upgrades at Oltman. It is one of three questions on the ballot that could cost taxpayers $150 million.
South Washington’s school referendum fight is playing out on front lawns and Facebook pages, and it is fueled by the hiring of Dorr.
Andrea Mayer-Bruestle is running for school board and leading the “vote no” campaign. She does not buy into the district’s growth projections and accuses school staff of wildly overspending.
It is a message Dorr has been helping her spread. He is a man recognized for his beliefs in home schooling and religion.
“It is an unbiblical beast that is devouring our civilization,” Dorr said about public schools, while he was a guest on the Colin Gunn radio program. “Time go get our kids out, time to get our grandkids out. Enough is enough.”
On his website, Dorr says he works to “roll back the cost and spending patterns of local government.” He has worked to defeat 82 school referendums in nine states and boasts an 80-percent success record. But getting him to brag about his work proves to be a challenge.
Dorr lives just over the Minnesota border in the tiny town of Ocheyedan, Iowa. He is the father of 11 children.
His office sits just a few feet from his house in a small garage. He would not open the door when WCCO-TV’s cameras stopped by.
Dorr does not think his strong feelings against public schools should play a role in the vote.
“I’m not a voter and I’m not a taxpayer in those districts, so what do I care?” Dorr said through the doorway. “It doesn’t do me any good for my clients or my future work to put me into the story.”
Dorr told WCCO he never speaks to the media before a referendum vote. He says it is too distracting and that it does not do his clients any good when he becomes the focus of a story.
Bill Brown, a farmer in St. James, has sparred with Dorr in the past as the former president of the school board.
“He gets his fee and he leaves town, and he leaves a mess,” Brown said. “He’s trying to destroy public education one school at a time.”
After six failed referendums in 15 years, voters in St. James will decide for a seventh time if they will make improvements to their schools.
“The needs are real, and we need to do something,” St. James Schools District Superintendent Becky Cselovszki said.
Dorr has been hired by the opposition there in at least five of the past votes. School groups say rural communities are often Dorr’s target.
Farmers with large properties pay more for school referendums.
“Is it fair? Not really,” Brown said. “But that’s why we think tax reform would be the answer to all of this. But until it comes, we have to do something about our facilities.”
Someone like Brown will pay $2,500 a year if St. James passes its plan. Someone in a $200,000 house will pay $200 a year.
The Minnesota Association of School Administrators offers a Dorr playbook of sorts on its website.
First, they say, Dorr reaches out to farmers after learning of an impending tax request. Then, he requests large amounts of public data and sends out “skewed enrollment and construction costs” in the final days of a campaign when it is too late to counter.
Back in the South Washington County School District, Mayer-Bruestle doesn’t agree with everything Dorr stands for.
“He’s our consultant,” she said. “We don’t always have to agree with everybody we work with. He scares them because he wins.”
She is confident with his help they will defeat the east metro’s largest tax request of the year.
“God’s hand is in it. We’re seeing kingdom advancement in every aspect, and we’re saving people $3.2 billion so far in property taxes and we hope we can expand this around the country,” Dorr said to Colin Gunn.
Under Minnesota law, school districts must provide factual information when it comes to referendums.
There are no laws pertaining to what vote-no committees print or say.
Dorr would not tell WCCO how much he is paid by campaigns. Public records show he usually makes at least a few thousand dollars if he successfully defeats a referendum.