BARRETT, Minn. — The debate over a public school bond referendum in Grant County was always heated, but it became “nasty” after one town learned it may lose its elementary school to a quickly growing neighbor, population 608.
The discourse became personal after a little-known group guided by a man named Paul Dorr — who has burned LGBTQ library books in protest and for the past 25 years led multiple campaigns against school bond referendums throughout the Midwest by calling public education a “sin against God” — was hired to consult the campaign against the $47.4 million referendum.
“That’s when it became nasty,” said Jared Olson, a new father and a city mechanic for nearby Fergus Falls. His stepdaughters, in third and fifth grades, attend public schools in Grant County.
Tensions began escalating sharply on Aug. 10 when a Facebook page popped up and yellow fliers crammed with 12-point font began circulating throughout the county by a group called WCA Citizens For Progress.
With strategic help from Dorr, who is from Iowa, the Vote No group began targeting elected officials, teachers and anyone in support of the referendum, said Michelle Nessman, a West Central Area School Board representative.
A war of words between Vote Yes and Vote No ensued, and the strain is now visibly scattered across cleanly cut yards in the form of signs throughout Grant County’s rural towns, like Elbow Lake, Barrett, Kensington and Hoffman.
“I was always taught that during elections you fight like heck, and then once it’s over you mend fences. But I don’t know what we can mend when this is done,” Olson said.
That is so-called “bond buster” Dorr’s specialty — getting paid to oppose such referendums and exacerbate tensions, which often leaves communities in a mess, said Nessman. With a 70% success rate, fighting off at least 63 referendum votes in 26 school districts, Dorr focuses on rural towns with populations below 15,000, according to American Public Media.
In 2019, Dorr helped lead the fight against a $35 million bond referendum in Minnesota’s Russell-Tyler-Ruthton Public School District, but the debate went into the gutter with personal attacks, said Superintendent David Marlette on Joel Heitkamp’s radio show called “Down the Road with Joel” in September 2021.
WCA Citizens for Progress
On Sept. 21, WCA Citizens For Progress officially announced Dorr’s affiliation with the group on its Facebook page, which has 234 followers.
“Sure, we hired Paul Dorr’s company, Copperhead Consulting Services as a vendor to assist our committee work to defeat another wasteful WCA bond proposal. He’s a vendor and our executive committee always has the final say on our campaign message, regardless of any personal (and sometimes strange) ideas of his,” the announcement said.
Many in the Vote Yes camp see Dorr's involvement as a chance for him to profit.
“He has found a way to capitalize on something he hates, which is public education," Nessman said. "He makes money one of three ways — the first chunk is to represent the organization that hired him, the second chunk is after a vote has failed, and the third way is he sues districts, finding ways to bring further contention by bringing lawsuits against districts specifically."
“It’s not me they’re up against, it is the community. There is a division in the community even before I get there,” Dorr said in an Oct. 8 online rebuttal against Russell-Tyler-Ruthton Public School District Superintendent David Marlette on in the The Dorr Report.
Joe Green, chairman for the WCA Citizens for Progress, said, “District and county officials are causing great harm to the confidence” of area voters. In press releases and fliers, the group is focused on what they believe is voter fraud, citing postal service issues, and the fact that some mail-in ballots have been rejected because postal box addresses were used.
“These are conscientious voters … who read and follow these instructions carefully and many are now rattled thinking they’ve done something wrong, when it was the district who did wrong,” Green stated in an Oct. 20 press release.
A “cloud of confusion” is complicating the voting process, he said, demanding an apology from election officials. The group supports a three-site option, which would include a remodel, revitalization and expansion, Green said.
"We believe we need to live within our means," Green said, expressing doubt that state tax incentives will remain in place given the state's current budget challenges.
Aiming to 'establish the Kingdom of God’
In 2013, Dorr, who did not respond to repeated telephone calls and emails from The Forum, gave a speech. During the speech he acknowledged that he one day envisions a world with no public schools, and he also made degrading remarks about women in positions of authority in public schools.
“I have a deep, passionate abhorrence of government schools. I am dedicating my life to see them, and to pass it along to my children and children’s children, to see that institution one day be gone,” Dorr said in the 2013 public speech.
During the speech he also said, “The county governments, city governments, school governments that are working in nine states are being turned over to a brutal, cruel, oppressive class of women,” adding that “these women have never understood. Many of them have lost their role and their understanding of what is going on, and they’ve become very brutal people.”
“As a female that is charged with being a leader in the district, I have no doubt that even though Paul Dorr doesn’t insert into the campaign his personal viewpoints that the damage done to demean and minimize and silence protected classes will be long-lasting, and I personally will have to take several years to digest,” Nessman said.
In Oct. 2018, Dorr made headlines after he burned LGBTQ library books in Iowa and posted the event on Facebook live. He was later convicted of criminal mischief for the book burning, and paid a fine of $65 plus court costs.
Dorr is part of the Christian Reconstructionist Movement, founded by Rousas John Rushdoony. It is a philosophy that seeks to “apply biblical law to every aspect of life and to transform every aspect of culture to establish the Kingdom of God,” which will prompt the second coming of Jesus Christ, according to a research paper published by Oxford University Press.
Rushdoony, a Holocaust denier, and followers of Christian Reconstructionism adhere to Old Testament law, believing homosexuality and adultery should be capital offenses and interracial marriage should be illegal.
The group has targeted education because followers believe the only biblical form of education should be private education in Christian schools and home-schools, under the exclusive authority of the family, according to National Public Radio journalists Lisa Hagen of WABE in Atlanta and Chris Haxel formerly with KCUR in Kansas City, both of whom won the Pulitzer Prize for their investigative podcasts into American gun rights activism.
“One way Paul (Dorr) prepared the next generation was by home-schooling his 11 children. Then there's his day job. He's a political consultant. While his sons mostly focus on guns, Paul works on dismantling public education. He's a hired gun who gets paid to attack public school funding,” Hagen reported.
Green said they hired Dorr because he has a nearly 80% success rate in defying school bond referendums.
"He knows how wasteful bond issues impact our children, schools, families and communities," Green said, adding Dorr has worked in Pelican Rapids, Rothsay, Worthington and Brandon-Evansville. "As in those communities, our campaign is ours, not Paul Dorr's. The real reason they howl about Dorr is that he helps committees like us communicate challenging issues and bring critical knowledge to voters to animate them to vote no."
After the West Central Area School Board held five meetings with the public to inform and answer questions, facts have been twisted and misrepresented, Nessman said. Allegations of voter fraud in another district are being used to say that the same will happen in Grant County, Nessman said.
Opponents of the referendum are blaming the school district for slow mail. Pamphlets have been stolen from area gas stations and thrown into the garbage. The credentials of experienced school clerks and election judges are being questioned, a pill that is difficult to swallow because in rural towns everyone knows each other, Nessman said.
“Online, they’re calling us bullies and narcissists,” Nessman said. The Vote Yes Facebook page has 397 followers.
Superintendent Dale Hogie is new to the position and is trying to stick to the high road by countering misinformation with facts, he said.
“They sometimes take shots at me that I just came here, but I’m not the decision-maker. I gather the information and answer to the board,” Hogie said.
There is no disagreement that the county’s aging school buildings need to be addressed, but the issue lies in how the problems are addressed, Nessman said, adding that multiple referendums in the past failed.
“I think the plans that went out before was to consolidate everything into Barrett, but it was a bridge too far for a lot of people to give up their community schools,” Olson said.
“This is a plan to keep our three schools, closing the one in Kensington but building one in Hoffman, and this way it can become a new, modern facility on one flat level,” he said.
Some people in Kensington, population 246, however, don’t want to lose their school, said Keith Swanson, a Grant County teacher for more than three decades.
“I live in Hoffman,” Swanson said. “And if the board had decided that Kensington was the best place, I would still have a 'yes' sign in my yard. We don’t like the idea that we are getting pulled apart here, but it’s a very volatile thing when 30 years ago Hoffman lost its school.”
Hoffman lost its school in 1979 and became part of the West Central Area district because it was the right decision then. Now, Swanson said, “it looks like it’s in the best interest of West Central students that Kensington should close theirs.”
The population in Hoffman has been slowly increasing over the past decade. Businesses are investing in the town, and real estate prices have risen to rival housing prices in Fargo, about 90 miles west.
For Grant County’s bond referendum, the financial impact of the project, which on the ballot is structured into three projects, will be $23 million, because the state, under the School Building Bond Agricultural Credit program, pays for the rest of the $47.4 million proposal.
For a residential homestead owner over a 20-year period, the tax hike will be $14.33 a month, or $172 a year. Farmers will see a $2.88 increase in taxes per acre, which will decrease in 2023 to $2.16.
Commercial enterprises will see a $29.92 increase in taxes per month, totaling $359 a year.
The bond incentive program won’t disappear, Nessman said, and the Vote No group is trying to instill fear about tax obligations.
“It’s fearmongering at its worst. We’re talking about $3.31 a week, which will get the elementary schools where they need to be,” she said.
“For the legislature to revoke that would be political suicide,” Swanson said.
Nessman is concerned that Dorr’s true agenda is being ignored by some who are involved in the Vote No group. The vote for the three items in the school bond referendum will conclude on Nov. 2.
“We’re talking about an environment where we encourage people to be inclusive and not to be bullies, and we choose partners who would support us through due diligence,” Nessman said.
“You didn’t hire someone that is like-minded, you hired someone whose entire foundation is to destroy the very thing your kids are going to. Would you be okay with public education going away?” she said of the Vote No campaign. “You have created a bigger problem that will take many years in our district to recover from."