Paul Dorr is a master of tactics to defeat referendums intended to finance public schools. He believes schools run by government steer kids away from Christianity. His campaigns — most of them in the Midwest — have also created lingering bitterness within communities.
August 29, 2019 | by Alex Baumhardt
Three years ago, on a day when the small, rural town of Worthington, Minnesota, came together, it also began tearing apart.
It was King Turkey Day, one of Worthington's largest annual events. For 79 years, the Southwest Minnesota town has celebrated its bygone poultry industry and its agricultural community with a parade, a pancake breakfast and a turkey race through downtown.
Celebrations like this in rural America can bring people together, and in 2016, the event came at a good time. Early fall brought a highly polarized presidential election. In fact, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar was there and gave a speech about staying united in divisive times.
Soon after, the street was cleared for the birds, and the crowd chanted. Then, a silence. The two turkeys were off, speeding down 10th Street.
Jenny Andersen-Martinez was at King Turkey Day with her two kids. It seemed like everyone in the town of about 13,000 was out celebrating. In Worthington, a farming community, houses can be acres apart, so an event like this was a special occasion.
"It's super chaotic," she recalled.
Kids were handing out fliers with information about the upcoming school bond vote, that, if approved, would raise property taxes to pay for a new high school.
Andersen-Martinez remembers the fliers called the school construction "wasteful" and urged people to vote "no" in November. The authors wrote that the owners of a meatpacking plant — a major employer in the area — should pay for the new school.
Distributing the fliers at King Turkey Day "was a pretty good strategy because everyone is unsuspecting," said Andersen-Martinez, recalling that kids were everywhere, grabbing candy, and people lined the street accepting free stuff.
Voters in Worthington had faced the question before. For several years, the school district struggled with overcrowding.
It had grown by about 100 students per year during the previous 10 years, and several of the buildings were at capacity. At the middle school, storage rooms were being turned into classrooms. Some teachers didn't have their own classrooms, so they used carts to move their supplies among classrooms.
The district needed to ask voters for $79 million to pay for a new high school and athletic facility. That meant a tax increase of about $200 per year for a house valued at $125,000, or about $26 per acre of farmland, per year. Farmers in the Worthington school district, because of their vast land holdings, would be facing the highest individual increases in their property taxes.
Not long after the fliers appeared at King Turkey Day, Andersen-Martinez says she began hearing more buzz about the vote.
A month earlier she had agreed to help lead a "Vote Yes" campaign for a new school. Andersen-Martinez didn't think convincing voters in Worthington to pay more taxes for a new school was going to be easy, but she hadn't thought that people would campaign against it.
Andersen-Martinez said the flier was "the first sign of anything awry."
It also was the first sign of Paul Dorr, a vehement opponent of public schools and supporter of religious-centric home-schooling who's led campaigns that have helped defeat scores of bond issues in nine states — mostly in the upper Midwest — for the past 25 years. "Public education is a sin against God," he has said.
In the election season three years ago, Dorr was working as the communications consultant for a group called the Worthington Citizens For Progress Committee. It had created the flier.
Dorr would eventually sharpen the anti-school-bond group tactics with a Facebook page, website, videos and memes to target local businesses, politicians and media.
The material accused the school district of exaggerating the harm if the bond didn't pass. It claimed the school board was mismanaging money and was incompetent, even deaf. The committee encouraged people not to eat at restaurants where school bond information was displayed and wrote critically about business leaders who supported the new school.
Dorr, who doesn't live in Worthington — or in Minnesota, for that matter — was deploying tools of attack that seemed more fitting for political combat on a national stage, not a school bond vote in the American countryside. People were stunned.
Two months after the first signs of Dorr at King Turkey Day, the district lost its referendum vote — the first of four failed attempts between the fall of 2016 and the winter of 2019 to raise taxes for a new school.
And depending on one's cost-benefit analysis of tax-funded public schools, Dorr was either the hero or villain in the outcomes — some farmers liked his message of what they saw as unneeded spending, but for those on the receiving end of his campaigns, his tactics seemed ruthless.
People involved in the votes say that when the vote is over and Dorr has left town, neighbors have stopped talking with each other, relationships are ruined and trust in the local government is broken.
Dorr wouldn't agree to an interview. In response to a reporter's request via email, Dorr wrote that he doesn't support "Big government radio programs. Such networks promoting leftist ideology and the god of government would simply not exist apart from stealing taxpayer funds from Christians."
Single-minded in pursuing his campaign
Dorr works from his home in the small town of Ocheyedan, Iowa, running a business called Copperhead Consulting. His specialty is beating back school bond votes.
Measured by election results, he's very good at his job. In 2013, Dorr claimed he had worked against at least 80 school bond referendums in Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas.
APM Reports was able to confirm his involvement in at least 63 referendum votes in 46 school districts. He has helped defeat 44 of the 63 votes, or about 70 percent, a much higher rate of defeating bond votes than is typical in those states. Many of the towns are rural, with populations below 15,000, but at least two have been in bigger metro areas.
For his work on the 63 referendum votes, it appears he's been paid $222,163, or $8,886 per year, according to various public records. For Dorr, though, the work is personal, and he makes it personal for many others, too.
Greg Raymo is president of the First State Bank Southwest in Worthington.
Not long after King Turkey Day, Raymo was targeted on the Worthington Citizens For Progress Facebook page. When he spoke in favor of a new school at a city council meeting and was quoted in the local paper in support of the bond referendum, Dorr's group wrote on a Facebook post — in all caps — that Raymo was "MISGUIDED," and criticized some of his comments.
Not long after, several people closed their accounts at Raymo's bank. One insisted on watching Raymo close the account.
The banker says he never expected the bitterness. "The personal attacks on our superintendent, the personal attacks on any farmers that wanted to support it, the personal attacks on any business owners that wanted to support it — those personal attacks will take years to get over. It became way too personal."
Adam Blume was friends with Raymo's son, Nick.
Blume lives on a 1,200-acre farm west of downtown Worthington where he and his dad grow corn and soybeans and raise cattle. When the school bond issue came up in 2016, Blume and his dad joined the Worthington Citizens For Progress Committee. "The initial thing with the progress committee was we were voicing the tax issue," he says.
One day Nick texted him about what Dorr had written about Nick's father: "MISGUIDED." He told Blume to look at the post for himself. "And I looked, and I was like — what is this? This is a personal attack," Blume says. "The next day I took my name and my dad's off. This isn't what we're about."
Andersen-Martinez says Dorr's rhetoric emboldened others to start criticizing their neighbors. "To hear some of the things that people would say and to see some of the comments on Facebook was just really discouraging," she says.
Dorr's opponents say competing against Dorr is rough. In addition to fliers, Facebook and websites, he uses radio ads and has even used billboards to get his message across: Local school administrators, local government officials and local business owners are not being honest about the vote.
Allen Pratt, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association, said he hadn't heard of Dorr, or anyone doing work quite like him. That said, he sees how someone could make a living out of leveraging the emotions on either side of a bond vote.
"You get advocates on both sides talking about, 'We're going to do what's best for children' and 'How can you vote against something that's going to help children.' I think that it's always emotional."
He says that in many rural towns, school bond votes are acutely sensitive because a healthy school system is a sign of the overall prosperity, or lack of it. "The school is the center hub of the community," he says, "And let's just be honest, if those communities lose their schools, their communities are probably headed for a rapid decline."
In 2006 — 13 years after Dorr was involved in his earliest recorded referendum in Minnesota — members of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators became concerned. They held a session at a statewide conference called "School Finance Election & the Paul Dorr Factor: Get Ready or Get Defeated."
They also produced a "Rapid Referendum Response Guide" on beating him. It included a document with testimony from school superintendents in Iowa and Minnesota who have faced Dorr. In it they wrote: "He leaves a trail of divided communities with no apparent remorse."
Condemning public schools, local government
Fred Nolan, the executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, knows well the work Dorr has done against school bonds in Minnesota and Iowa.
And like Pratt, he believes Dorr is exploiting an emotionally volatile issue. "It's fertile ground for someone who wants to bring divisiveness," Nolan says. Getting voters to pass a school bond referendum in rural parts of the country is tough enough without divisive tactics and, "... he just makes it harder."
Every state places most of the burden on the local property tax base to pay for a new school building or additions. In 12 states, the local tax base is the only funding source. The federal government contributes nothing. School districts borrow money then tax privately-owned real estate to repay the loan.
In many rural school districts, farmers own the most land.
Nolan says the property tax burden on farmers is compounded by the uncertainty of the agricultural economy. Farmers are known typically as "property rich but income poor." For example, despite some owning land worth millions of dollars, the average income for a farmer in southwest Minnesota in 2017 was roughly $36,000, compared to the average U.S. household income of $60,336 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many anti-bond referendum groups in the nine states where Dorr has worked share similar names. The Citizens for Progress Committee is one that comes up a lot, along with Citizens For Sustainable Education and Citizens Acting for Responsible Education (CARE).
Dorr is unique, said Nolan. "I don't think anybody else is doing it."
In one video on YouTube, Dorr stands at a podium. Bible verses are displayed behind him. In a slow, booming voice he says: "I have a deep, passionate abhorrence of government schools. I'm dedicating my life to see them, and to pass along the vision to my children and children's children, to see that institution one day be gone."
In a podcast called The War Room, Dorr says that while he works with groups to defeat their referendums, he also wants to expose "the illegitimacy of the local government." He says that everyone knows that, "Washington and their state capital are corrupt, but we hope at the local level that we still have some pretty decent people here yet. And it turns out, no, we don't, they're as corrupt here."
'We've got to get our kids out of public schools'
Dorr, 63, comes from a farming family but went into banking after college. He was co-owner of a small bank in Iowa before leaving, according to his website, consumed with the idea that the dollar would eventually collapse.
He turned to full-time advocacy work, based out of his Iowa home. He started an anti-abortion group called Rescue the Perishing. In 1999 he opened a store called Back Dorr Friends Pantry that sold bulk dry goods in preparation for a Y2K collapse, according to City Pages, an alt-weekly in Minneapolis.
Eventually, he started Copperhead Consulting to take on schools as well as other local ballot initiatives that involve raising taxes. He is anti-tax and anti-government. In 2008, he served as the Iowa field director for Libertarian Ron Paul's presidential bid.
Dorr says he is a "Christian Reconstructionist." Reconstructionists are also referred to as Calvinists or Christian Reformed. Many believe their duty is to push for a Christian theocracy, with laws based on the Old Testament.
He believes public schools are steering kids away from Christianity and that they all should be home-schooled or schooled within a community of shared religious beliefs. Dorr said on The War Room podcast that, "We've got to get our kids out of (public schools.)"
He takes greatest offense to sex education, believing it was responsible for the sexual revolution that started in the 1960s. He says it pushed girls and women away from Christianity and a Christian God. Dorr has said that, "County governments, city governments, school governments ... I've worked in nine states are being turned over to a brutal, cruel, oppressive, class of women."
He's also intolerant when it comes to gender and L.G.B.T.Q. issues.
Last fall, Dorr went to Orange City, Iowa, to check out several books from the local library: "Two Boys Kissing," "Families, Families, Families," "This Day in June" and "Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress."
All had positive L.G.B.T.Q. themes and characters. Then, a few days later, on the first day of the city's Pride festival, Dorr lit a fire in a steel garbage can and streamed a live video of the books burning.
For the first 25 minutes of the video, Dorr talks about how Christians of his generation have let children down by letting these books exist. He criticizes sex education and says these children's books are indoctrinating kids and encouraging them to become gay.
Then he holds each book over the flaming garbage can and drops them in. He starts with "Two Boys Kissing." He holds onto the book for a bit until the flames are moving up the pages, then drops it. "That one won't be going to the children anymore," he says. The video made national news, and the library received hundreds of book donations to replace the burned ones.
A few months later, he was charged with fifth-degree criminal mischief, a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum fine of $625 and 30 days in jail. Many people would have accepted a plea deal and paid the fine. Dorr took it to trial.
There was no jury, just a judge to decide the outcome earlier this month in Orange City. About a dozen of his family members filled the first two rows of the courtroom. He stood in front of them and they prayed before the judge took her seat.
He was found guilty. Dorr didn't try to defend himself, but before sentencing he read something written in the 16th century. It was the last two stanzas of the Dutch national anthem. He ended with the line, "To God the greatest of majesties, I owe obedience first and last, for justice, his justice, wills it so." He then said to the judge, "I now turn myself over to your hands."
Dorr was ordered to pay for the library books and the court fees — about $147. Outside the courtroom, he handed out copies of the anthem he'd read, but wouldn't talk with reporters. He issued a statement later saying that his motive in burning the books was to protect children and to honor God.
Playing to the pocketbook
Though Dorr's religious views motivate his activism, he rarely brings them into his anti-school-bond campaigns. Instead, he focuses on a more universal appeal: saving families money.
That pitch appeals to farmers like Robert Meyer. He owns 1,500 acres of farmland near St. Peter, Minnesota, a town of 11,000 people about an hour's drive from the Twin Cities.
In 2014 Meyer learned that the school district planned to ask voters for approval of a $59 million bond to build a new high school. Meyer was worried how the increase in property taxes would affect him. "It meant a lot of money to me and my wife," he said.
They gathered with other farming friends at a local restaurant to talk about what they could do to convince people in St. Peter to vote down the school's bond request. Someone in the group had heard of Dorr, and they reached out to him.
Meyer said Dorr helped them organize, gave them a name — the St. Peter Citizens For Progress Committee — and took charge of their communications strategy, especially on Facebook. Meyer had never used Facebook before. "We're not sophisticated like that," he said. "We hit on a messaging technique, and then he implemented it through our Facebook."
Meyer liked Dorr. He knew Dorr's mission was to defund public schools, and while he didn't agree with Dorr entirely, he said they had a lot of discussions about taxes and the state of public schooling. Meyer had gone through St. Peter public schools in the 1950s and '60s. They were good enough for him. Why weren't they good enough for students today?
Dorr's campaign wasn't successful. The referendum ultimately passed. Today St. Peter has a new high school and Meyer pays an additional $14,000 per year on his property taxes.
But, as with other places Dorr has worked, divisions in the town remain. "There won't be one child educated any better than they were before the referendum," Meyer said. He tries not to go anywhere near the school, and there are people in town who try not to go anywhere near him.
"There are a number of people that just don't talk to me anymore," he said, "but that's life. I'm at an age in my life where I don't give a shit what people think of me."
Bond outcomes have lingering effects
Dorr typically starts his campaigns with opposition research.
He requests records from the schools related to building inspections, test scores, enrollment projections and finances. He looks for information that could be used to undermine the credibility of school officials or the bond proposal. At that point, he creates a website and Facebook page for his groups and begins to create posts and videos that cast doubt on the information coming from the district.
For example, in 2018 the district said its classrooms were overcrowded. In response, Dorr and the Citizens For Progress posted to Facebook that enrollment was 500 students higher 47 years ago. Why, then, the need for more space?
At the time, though, the district had merged with three other districts and continued to use their buildings, which are not being used today. New classrooms also are now needed for federally mandated programs and classes like robotics to teach students skills they'll need to compete for jobs.
"To compare the early '70s to now is not comparing apples and apples. It's not comparing fairly," said Worthington School Superintendent John Landgaard.
Sometimes Dorr uses his own voice in radio ads and Facebook videos. He's narrated several for his groups in Minnesota, South Dakota and Illinois. In one Facebook video — for the Worthington Citizens For Progress Committee — he accused the school board of trying to build a new high school out of vanity. "It's a special kind of callousness, even cruelty, where the pride and ego of a handful can so easily exaggerate in their efforts to hurt those who are financially stressed, often the very poor," he says in the video. "Board members, please, really start to think of your neighbors and the children."
Other times, he'll have kids narrate the audio materials. Robert Olson is superintendent in the Clarion-Goldfield-Dows school district in Iowa. In 2006 he says Dorr got involved in their referendum and created colorful radio ads. "He would have youngsters that would be on the spots and talk about how they can't afford a bicycle because Daddy's got to pay for taxes on the school bond issue," Olson said.
As the vote gets closer, Dorr often sends out fliers with his interpretation of the tax impact, which is often promptly disputed by school officials. Olson says that when Dorr's fliers were sent out in his district, certain tax credits and other information that reduced the costs for voters hadn't been included. "There were things that made it look like it was going to cost the taxpayer much more than it really did," Olson said.
The weekend before the vote, Dorr often directs a phone blast to all the voters in the district.
"They'd have a supposedly retired teacher — it wasn't somebody from our district but it made it appear that it was from our district — saying that, 'the teachers aren't in support of this,'" said Becky Cselovski, the superintendent in St. James, Minnesota, where Dorr was involved in at least three of the small town's seven bond referendums that took place over 15 years.
Cselovski was singled out by the anti-bond group in their materials, and it was starting to take its toll. She nearly quit. "It was very, very draining to the point that, honestly, I had said several times that if [the bond] hadn't passed in , I don't know that I personally could have endured another one."
In Neligh, Nebraska, the superintendent did quit after a highly contentious bond referendum in 2014.
The town of 1,500 people in northeast Nebraska asked voters to approve money to renovate and expand the high school and two elementary schools in the district. The bond failed to pass thanks to Dorr and the group of locals he was working with, the Neligh-Oakdale Citizens For Progress Committee.
After the election, the bitterness persisted. Dorr and the citizens committee tried to recall the mayor and the City Council. They didn't succeed, but eventually took over the school board.
"Morale was awful, and people were torn between their friends," said Stephanie Wanek, who was on the City Council in Neligh at the time of the attempted recall. "It has been a long, hard process to bring our community back together again."
Even five years later, the wounds are still there. They've just been covered over. Most people in Neligh won't discuss what happened. The superintendent and the mayor said they wouldn't talk about the bond vote. The superintendent who was employed at the time of the vote wouldn't talk on the record. Publishers of both the town newspapers from 2014 refused interview requests recently, as did former school board presidents who were at odds with each other.
Hurt feelings aren't the only lasting consequences.
The Neligh Oakdale School District hasn't tried to run a bond since 2014, and the district has since seen an enrollment decline. The school has seen ups and downs but overall has lost 26 students in the past five years, which is worrisome. For a town that has slowly been losing population for years, keeping its school is critical to its future. Wanek said some of the enrollment decline is due to the failed bond vote.
Worthington's quest continues
Adam Blume — the Worthington farmer who spilt from Dorr's group — nonetheless voted against school bonds in 2016.
After yet another loss in February of 2018, the school district tried something new in the summer of 2018. It created a task force made up of people who supported the new school and people who had opposed it in the past.
Blume joined with an open mind.
He says the task force members had come up with a plan to build an intermediate school rather than a high school, at a cost of between $32 million and $35 million.
Blume and a colleague then talked to members of the Worthington Citizens For Progress Committee, looking for agreement.
But the Citizens For Progress wanted a $30 million plan, no more. Ultimately, the school district brought a $35 million proposal to voters, and added a second optional vote for $4 million for athletic fields and facilities improvements.
The opposition group was angry about the second ballot question and the amount. They again hired Dorr. Soon after, a message proclaiming that "The deal's off" appeared on Facebook.
Again, Dorr's tactics succeeded in defeating the bond.
By this point Blume had become a father to a daughter born with Down syndrome and he had more insight into the schools' space issues from working on the task force. Without new bond funding, he learned, there was a possibility that some special education classes could be moved to a separate building, one the school district had initially planned on demolishing in 2001 because of its age and condition.
Blume couldn't imagine his daughter going to a different school than other children in Worthington. He promptly ran for a seat on the school board and won.
Now, he sees the schools' needs a little differently. "My daughter needs this system. I feel that I need to do my due diligence to support that system," he says. "I don't want her to lose out."
In a little more than two months, the fifth vote in three years will take place in Worthington to fund the school district's needs.
It's not certain whether Blume will face Dorr or the Worthington Citizens For Progress leading up to Nov. 5.
David Bosma, the most recent chair of the opposition group, wouldn't confirm whether Dorr will be hired again. And Don Brink, one of the early founders of the Worthington Citizens For Progress, told a reporter, "It's none of your damn business."