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

Molacek remembers the first time Dorr contacted him. Dorr asked Molacek for test scores, student enrollment data, salaries, architect contracts, and other public records. Under Iowa state law, anybody who requests a public record must receive it by the tenth business day.

"I was in the process of consulting with our attorney to make sure that they were all open records," Molacek says. "And on day nine, he calls the county attorney and wants to press charges against me. He contacted the local media and tried to discredit me, saying, 'How can we have an open debate when Molacek won't even give the public documents that we need?'"

(Dorr maintains that Molacek was stonewalling him on the records.)

Dorr sent out mailers in South Tama accusing the district of having a failing record. "He used the ITBS [Iowa Test of Basic Skills] and ITED [Iowa Test of Education Development] test scores and compared them to ten years ago, when the norms have changed," Molacek says. According to the superintendent, Dorr also singled out lower fourth-grade scores instead of examining those of the entire school, which were stronger.

"These supers don't want to be held accountable for the miserable job they're doing," Dorr says. "We focused on fourth-grade scores, which were poor, because they wanted to build a new pre-K through fifth grade elementary school. Isn't that the relevant benchmark to be evaluating?" (While South Tama's test scores are indeed debatable, Les Norman, the Lake Crystal superintendent, describes this kind of selective presentation as being one of Dorr's favorite stratagems.)

Dorr also accused the South Tama district of being on the verge of declining enrollment. Why spend money on classrooms that would soon lie empty? "As a school district, we are obligated to only present the facts," Molacek says. "On one of the documents he sent out, he put an arrow next to the enrollment and said, 'This increase was due to the packing plant.' We don't have records like that. Nobody in the state has records like that. Well, the packing plant closed. And, in fact, our enrollment hasn't gone down."

A week or so before the election, the local Tama newspaper ran a letter to the editor from Nicole Jamison. The letter writer reported that she opposed the referendum because she was already burdened with two jobs and couldn't afford a tax hike to pay for a new school. The note helped humanize the "no" voters. But when Molacek confronted the paper and asked them to verify that Jamison existed, he says, they couldn't do it.

"There is no Nicole Jamison," Molacek says. "They ran the letter because at first they thought everything was on the up and up. By the time they found our there was no Nicole Jamison, it was the day of the vote."

Dorr denies that he had anything to do with such chicanery. He says that when the letter came out, he and the folks on the opposition committee also searched for Jamison, but came up empty-handed. "The paper blew it," he says.

Molacek doesn't look charitably at Dorr's tactics. "He puts his hand in a big bucket of--" Molacek says, before modesty gets the better of him, "and whatever sticks is fine and whatever falls is fine. He's just trying to destroy this vote. He's not living here, so he doesn't have to pick up the pieces."

Though Dorr may be a hired gun, he says the most he charges for his services is $5,000. In South Tama, according to the Iowa Ethics Campaign Disclosure Board, the Citizens Acting for Responsible Education committee paid approximately $3,000 for Dorr's efforts, which included steering the campaign, overseeing message creation, producing advertising material, and training poll watchers. The committee received more than $6,000 in donations, all from community members who opposed a tax increase.

Some of the money generated in Tama went to radio spots. In these ads, little kids could be heard pleading that if voters accepted the tax increase, their parents wouldn't have enough money to buy them the new bike they'd longed for. Dorr has been alleged to use his own kids in the ads; he maintains they are "paid actors" and won't reveal their identities. At the end of the month-long campaign and advertising blitz in Tama, the committee donated its remaining $10.60 to the Red Cross for tsunami-relief efforts.

In March 2004, the South Tama school bonding referendum failed by four votes, garnering 59.93 percent of the ballots. (For a bond referendum to be approved in Iowa, it must pass by at least 60 percent. This statute helps explain Dorr's high success rate in the state.) Six months later, with Dorr on the sidelines, the referendum passed with 74 percent of the votes. Molacek believes that Dorr's intrusions as an outsider lead to a rebound effect, galvanizing the community in support of its local school.

 

Joel Brude is a farmer with acreage in Blue Earth, Minnesota, and is also the chairman of Citizens for Quality Education. It is this 10-year-old home-school advocacy organization that hired Dorr to work against the bond initiative in Lake Crystal. Brude has been fighting public education for 20 years and has found an ideological ally in Paul Dorr.

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