The Gospel According to Paul Dorr
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.
Still, though it remains small, Lyle's population has grown since 1990. "This is not a dying community like Paul Dorr says it is," Ron Frank says.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, the people of Lyle had heard Dorr's name bandied about everywhere. They knew that Dorr had been the key figure in defeating school bond referendums throughout Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Minnesota. They knew that in less than two years, Dorr had worked in six other school districts in southern Minnesota, and that in April he was battling to snuff out the bond issue in Lyle and an $18.9 million referendum in Blooming Prairie.
They'd come across more colorful details about him, too. They had heard rumors about him selling Y2K goods. They'd heard that he once accused an Iowa judge of promoting bestiality because she was part owner of a Budweiser distributorship in northwest Iowa. His evidence was an ad featuring a talking chimp who flirts with a woman. (It ended up that it wasn't the judge, but her sister-in-law of the same name who owned the distributorship). All of these stories about Dorr turned out to be true.
The school advocates of Lyle knew that Dorr was a strident and resourceful opponent of the new building bond. But not everyone figures out that his political vision goes far beyond what happens with their additions and renovations. He believes, for instance, that schooling shouldn't be compulsory, but a parental obligation. And he wants to dismantle public education and return it to the pre-Civil War era. Kids should to be taught at home or in community schools, Dorr maintains, and no taxes whatsoever should go to the state for education. Collecting such taxes, Dorr contends, is unconstitutional.
"The federal or state government should not be involved at all, as was the case before the Unitarian and corporate class uprisings in the 1840s and '50s," Dorr says.
To Dorr, though, these details about his past and his current agenda are irrelevant. "Ask most of my past clients who have been saved the $280 million in local property taxes if they give a hoot about my cause," he says.
Dorr may be right that his supporters aren't interested in his biography, but that's not to say the details aren't intriguing. A 48-year-old father of 11 home-schooled children, Dorr got his B.S. in agricultural business at Iowa State University. His family runs a farm in Cherokee County, Iowa, which Dorr partly owned until 1986. His brother, Tom Dorr, still owns some of that business and other farmland in Iowa.
Tom Dorr is a senior advisor in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2001, he was nominated by President Bush to become undersecretary for rural development. The Senate rejected the confirmation partly because of what was contained in a taped phone conversation that was sent to the Des Moines Register. (It was this incident that first brought Paul into the public eye.)
On the audiotape, Tom is heard, purportedly talking to Paul (who has neither confirmed nor denied that this conversation took place). Tom said that government officials might "raise hell" if they audited his participation in federal farm subsidy programs. Tom Dorr had arranged two family trusts in order to avoid the federal caps placed on individual subsidy payments. Government investigators later announced that Tom Dorr had committed no wrongdoing. (In January of this year, President Bush renominated him for the same position.)
For 10 years, Paul Dorr was part owner of a community bank in Ocheyedan. After the bank was sold, he worked as a bank turn-around and stocks-acquisition consultant throughout the Midwest. He quit, he says, when he realized the harm of our "fiat-money" system--a term used to refer to a currency not backed by gold deposits.
"An economy whose money system is unhinged from any fixed standard is bound to bury itself and its host country in debt and destructive inflation," he says.
In 1999, Dorr opened Back Dorr Friends Pantry, a Y2K supply store that sold dried milk and dehydrated fruits and vegetables. When the business received an endorsement from a Christian publication, he told a reporter in Iowa in 1999, he began shipping as much as two tons of dried goods a week. He wouldn't reveal the store's location, however, out of fear of mass looting.
Three and a half years ago, Dorr began to devote himself nearly full-time to defeating school bond referendums. He started Dorr Consulting (now Copperhead Consulting Services) and barnstormed Iowa, working in Tama, Gilbert, Iowa City, Independence, and other towns.
In some cases, Dorr becomes involved in local school issues by calling on county auditors and asking if a bond referendum will be proposed in the near future. He'll also advertise his services in small-town newspapers. And as he's become more known for his work, the anti-bond committees composed of farmers and local business people have begun to contact him directly.
In early 2004, Dorr contacted Larry Molacek, the superintendent of schools in South Tama, Iowa. Dorr had been hired by Citizens Acting for Responsible Education, a group of farmers who took up fighting the proposed $9 million referendum in Tama.
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.
The farmer believes that history is being rewritten, and public schools are glossing over the importance of the Federalist Papers and the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. "They're trying to put issues in there, homosexuality issues," he says. "There's a lot of things occurring that are very negative to students being able to understand what happened with our government and how we became what we are today."
He also says that the separation of church and state is a myth, and that religion should be taught in the classroom as an integral part of American history. "The Bill of Rights comes from the Ten Commandments. So why aren't we telling students that?" he says.
Brude admits that Dorr is stepping up the war against public education, and that as he weaves his way through rural communities, more people are starting to question its necessity. He denies, however, that he hired Dorr to give him a heightened platform to proselytize for home education. He retained Dorr, Brude says, because school boards have their own consultants; Dorr represented a way for anti-bond voters to level the playing field.
Anita Angell may be less of an ideologue, but she, too, has engaged Dorr to help suppress bond referendums. Sitting at her lace-covered kitchen table, she leafs through a stack of literature and newspaper articles about the latest school-bond showdown in Blooming Prairie--one skirmish in a campaign going back to the early '90s.
One wall in her kitchen is dedicated to hand-painted wooden angels in blue and red with beaming smiles. Farming awards and plaques take their place on an adjacent wall. The commendation for "Premier Seedsman," awarded to her husband, John, hangs next to a framed cross-stitch embroidery that reads "Farm sweet farm."
Angell graduated from Blooming Prairie High School in the mid-'70s, and also sent her son and daughter there. She's the treasurer of the anti-bond group Citizens for Sustainable Education, which hired Dorr to help campaign against the latest bond ballot. It was rejected by 303 votes on May 17 of this year.
The farming town is about 15 miles north of Austin, and has a two-block-long downtown that, like Lyle's, is dotted with American flags. Around the corner from the downtown strip of highway is the town's Main Street, where quaint, turn-of-the-century, two-story buildings house a pharmacy, a bakery, a hardware store, and a pizza parlor. Angell says the debate had become so tumultuous that she's still uncomfortable visiting this little commercial district.
"It's gotten so ugly," she says, taking off her glasses and poking at the air with the earpiece to punctuate her thoughts. "It should not be like this. It needs to stop. I want to know that I can go to Main Street and a guy isn't going to wave his fist at me."
She's quick to point out that the group opposing the referendum didn't hire Dorr because he's out to diminish the role of public education, but because he's good at creating messages that get the committee's issues across. "He can't tell me what to think," she says, her lips tightening and her eyes growing wide. "It doesn't matter what his views are. Nobody can tell me how to think. Not even John can do that."
In the last year, the value of the couple's homesteaded farm and residence has increased by $52,000. The assessment on another parcel of their land has shot up $42,000. She says the family, with roughly 800 acres, simply can't afford to pay for a new school building, which could cost them more than $100,000 over the 20-year term of the bond. "The way it's figured is not fair," she says. "The system is broken and it needs to be fixed."
No matter what new figure the school district offers, Angell says, she would never vote to approve another referendum. Truly, no one could accuse her of inconsistency: She says that she voted against one Blooming Prairie school bond measure while her own children were enrolled in the district.
"Do I want the school to shut down?" She shrugs, thinking about it for a moment. "I've said it before: What would it matter?"
Though Dorr has shown himself to be no friend of rural school districts, he is a strong advocate for an alternate philosophy of education. It's not always easy to get him to talk about it. Though Dorr doesn't hold his tongue in the small towns where he's campaigning, he shows little interest in speaking to the state media. After declining to meet for an interview, however, Dorr agreed to discuss his ideas in a series of e-mail exchanges.
"The tragedy is that the poorest class of society is being harmed the most by it," he says of the public schools. "Their children serve primarily to fill seats needed to secure access to tax revenues, and then their future dependency on the bureaucracy is secured by introducing them to illicit sex, harmful drugs, and anything but a rigorous education."
Dorr believes that if most of the tax monies going to the state and federal governments for education were returned to the taxpayers, the cash flow would be so great that middle-class Christian families could operate their own schools and still have funds left over to help poor Christians to educate their children.
"I would love nothing more than to see a flourishing of private schools run by Protestants, Catholics, Unitarians, Jews, Quakers, Hmong, etc.," Dorr says. "Let them teach the academics as well as their traditions and let them each provide for the poor in their neighborhoods/communities." The picture Dorr seems to be laying out here is one of segregated schools, organized around traditions, values, and in many cases, race and ethnicity.
Dorr repeatedly talks about how public schools encourage a dependency on the bureaucracy and the welfare system by introducing students to sex and drugs. And he sees no value in compulsory education as a means to create a trained workforce and limit unemployment, poverty, criminality, and other social ills.
"The reverse of the 19th-century slogan used to popularize public schools at the time--that is, 'Build more public schools and we'll build less jails'--has been fully realized," he says.
Instead, Dorr says, after "naturalist and narcissistic" public education gives way to parent-directed and Christian schools, crime will decrease and fewer people will have to depend on welfare. In fact, it's the public education system, Dorr says, that teaches kids a sense of self-entitlement and promotes a naturalist view, which he describes as shortsighted.
Secularists, he says, believe that "the triune God of the Bible has nothing to say about science, math, history, art, etc. There is no supernatural foundational purpose to learning...[public education] teaches self-esteem, self-image, self-awareness, self-actualization, self, self, self. True Christian schools teach Christ and Him glorified in all of your academic and social pursuits."
Molacek, from South Tama, finds Dorr's messianic stance amusing. "You know, he professes to be a Christian," Molacek says. "I'm not sure Christ would come into a community and do what he does."
The Saturday before the Tuesday vote in Lyle, farmers received a personalized letter signed by an unnamed "former Lyle graduate," that detailed the individual agriculture subsidies they'd received over the years. The letter said, "Be honest and give back part of the millions you get for doing nothing." The Save Our School and Community members believe it was a piece of disinformation sent out to make the pro-bond voters out to be villains.
Dorr says he doesn't need to resort to subterfuge to get his message out. "My guess is that their side did it.... The senior PAC committee members and I had nothing to do with it. Government education is failing on its own and I've never been known not to sign my name, or in these cases, encourage my clients to not sign their names to what we produce."
Despite the intrigue so close to the ballot, the Lyle referendum passed on May 24 by a 106-vote margin. Voter turnout was 97 percent.
Yet more than a month after the bond went through, the members of Save Our School and Community are hardly calling it a victory. On one of the hottest days of the year, Ron Frank is occupied with outdoor work, spraying fields and pitching in to help his customers where he can. Some of these farmers were "no" voters, and he suspects that his outspokenness on this issue has lost him some business. He agrees to meet outside of a small white church on a hilltop. It's one of the only buildings visible on a stretch of county road that's mostly decorated with manicured mazes of crops.
"Families were divided, friendships were ruined," he says, looking out over the fields. "It's no different than the Hormel strike. It's going to take time to get over."
Ron's brother Wayne, who served on the pro-bond committee, says that he has farmer friends who have stopped coming around the town for coffee. He's heard rumors that some farmers have boycotted the neighborhood shops and are refusing to participate in Lyle's annual Independence Day celebration. Without them, the truck-and-tractor pull, an event favorite, may not happen.
"People feel like they were treated unfairly," Ron says. "We all have a different idea of what our share is. But Dorr's tried to make it a rural and townsperson issue. He's trying to get people to buy into it so he can get the end result--no public schools."
In Blooming Prairie, Anita Angell has experienced the same lingering friction with her neighbors. The pro-bond committee members have come out with statements that, Angell says, question a "no" voter's intelligence. And there have been personal attacks on Angell and others. She says she has received threatening phone calls, but declines to offer any specifics.
"I know for a fact businesses have been affected by this. There are things that happened," she says, her voice trailing off. "And I don't think I'll go to those businesses again. What's going to happen to downtown? I think this turned into somewhat of a tragedy."
Angell is preparing for a meeting that night with community members and school officials to discuss plans for the school and another possible referendum. She suspects a new proposal will come up for a vote by November. "The gloves are off," she says. "You can't crap on me twice. Tonight's meeting is going to be tough. If they want the farmers to pay for this school with the structure that's in place, it's not going to happen."
When asked if her group will again hire Dorr to fight the proposed referendum, Angell refuses to comment. Dorr reports that he plans to continue working in the upper Midwest and has another battle developing in Minnesota. In fact, he has received requests to expand his business and take it national.
If anything, he says, his crusade is only beginning: "My solution for Christians: Stop fueling tax consumption wherever we lawfully can and abandon their 'schools.' Let them devour themselves without us. We have a future to build."
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