The Gospel According to Paul Dorr

How a little-known political consultant from Iowa is beating back the menace of public education, one school referendum at a time

The first time Wayne Frank saw Paul Dorr, he was sitting in a van near the Lyle Fire Station, holding a walkie-talkie to his mouth. Dorr was instructing his teenage daughter, who held the other walkie-talkie, on the fine art of handing out flyers.

The girl and three of her ten siblings were standing outside the building, cheerfully stopping people as they passed by, and pushing Dorr-penned literature into their hands. The piece of paper held brief but pointed information about Les Norman, the superintendent from a nearby district, Lake Crystal Welcome-Memorial, who was scheduled to speak at the fire hall moments later. His district was in statutory debt, the flyer read. Do you want Lyle to end up in the same situation?

Frank, a city maintenance worker and tax assessor, and the other two members of a committee called Save Our School and Community had invited Norman because of his first-hand experience with Dorr. A home-school proponent and political consultant from Ocheyedan, Iowa, Dorr had shown up to battle the school bond referendum in Lyle, as he has throughout the Midwest. To date, Dorr has attempted to defeat 31 school bond initiatives; he has succeeded in 25 of those contests. In Minnesota, he has prevailed in four of his six campaigns.

Dorr refuses to reveal exactly where he's worked in Minnesota, but Norman says Dorr has meddled in referendum issues in Lyle, Blooming Prairie, Wells, St. James, Redwood Falls, and his own district, Lake Crystal Welcome-Memorial. People who've encountered Dorr's campaigns in Iowa and Minnesota describe him as canny, determined, and opportunistic. He is a distant cousin to the Music Man, driving from town to town, painting a picture of failing schools and waste, collecting pay-outs from disgruntled locals who don't want to hand over new taxes.

These skirmishes aside, the bigger battle he's waging is on public education in its totality, an institution he believes should be dismantled and scrapped.

Dorr has grandstanded for a variety of causes over the years. As an anti-abortion activist, he founded the Rescue the Perishing Christian Family Ministry. He once argued that Budweiser was encouraging bestiality. And in 2000, he protested a play at Northwestern College, a conservative Christian school in Orange City, Iowa, because he said it promoted "homosexual sin."

But not all of Dorr's activism has been so transparent. After dealing with Dorr in his district last year, Norman has become something of an expert on his maneuvers. "Dorr's campaigns have nothing to do with information and everything to do with distortion," he says. Though Lyle had been warned that the man in the van was coming, nothing could have prepared the town for the ugly showdown that was shaping up.

Wayne Frank's brother Ron, a farm-supply salesman and former mayor, says the issue set the town back 20 years, to when the nearby Hormel meatpacking strike cut the heart of Lyle in two.

"Dorr stepped it up," Wayne Frank adds. "He made it more personal. I'm taking it more personally. The emotions and tension are still very high."

The initiative itself was fairly simple: The school district was asking voters to approve $8.34 million in new bonding. Some of this money would go to renovate parts of the K-12 school's 1956 building, the rest to tear down and rebuild the wing that went up in 1906. The Minnesota Department of Education had concluded that renovation costs for the school's 1906 space would amount to more than 60 percent of the cost of developing the addition from the ground up. They recommended starting anew; contractors and architects, who had visited the building and looked at the same cost efficiencies, said the same thing. It was either that, or face shutting the school down.

"What bothers me the most is how Dorr categorizes every building the same," Wayne Frank says. "It could be falling in, but he's still against building a new school."

For Frank, a 1977 graduate of Lyle, the alternative to a new building--consolidation with another district--would be to watch Lyle become a wasteland. Without its own school, the town would wind up like so many other farming ghost towns, desolate and abandoned.

Lyle and its township make up a sleepy farming community of 900 souls, nestled 15 miles outside of Austin near the Iowa border. While the town's century-old community values are still intact, Ron Frank says, it has suffered a few growing pains over the last 10 years. Property values are increasing, owing in part to metro area sprawl. And while there are fewer farmers, the ones who remain hold more acreage then ever. These new rural economics fueled the debate over taxes attached to the referendum.

Farmers complained that they'd pay a disproportionate amount of the bond, while others contended that it was a simple equation of increased value and acreage: You own more, you pay more.

Though farm holdings are expanding and increasing in worth, the tiny downtown, which covers one block, has fewer businesses than in years past. There's a liquor store, an auto-body shop, a community center, an antique and crafts store, a library the size of a one-car garage, and a gas station that advertises ethanol-blended fuel and breakfast pizza. American flags wave from the streetlight posts that greet truckers as they cross the state line into Minnesota.

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