Pelican Rapids school election messages formed by outside consultants
PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. - One week before a $21.9 million bond referendum vote in the Pelican Rapids School District, residents are getting much of their information, both pro and con, from outside consultants.
A “vote no” group has an Iowa consultant on its side, whose work includes defeating dozens of bond referendums all over the country, and whose stated goal is to contribute to the demise of public schools.
Meanwhile, the school district has enlisted the help of a Twin Cities-area consultant to get its message to voters, who turned down a similar bond referendum in March.
The result Nov. 5 could ultimately come down to who the voters most trust.
The local group fighting the referendum is Pelican Rapids Citizens Acting for Responsible Education, or PR CARE.
The committee has so far used postcard mailings and signs tacked up outside homes and businesses to make its message visible.
However, its leaders have chosen to remain, for the most part, invisible.
PR CARE committee chairman Les Rotz and treasurer Sue Seifert declined to be interviewed by The Forum.
In an email from Seifert, she stated, “The media has chosen to focus on trivial matters of the opposition.”
She adds, “We will continue to take our message directly to the voters and avoid having our message filtered and diminished through editing and nuance.”
The most instrumental person behind their message is Paul Dorr, of Ocheyedan, Iowa, who also keeps a low media profile during his campaigns.
Dorr is a former bank management consultant and father of 11 children, all home-schooled.
His website, www.rollbacklocalgov.com, is sponsored by Copperhead, a political and financial consulting service he owns. Through it, he offers to help local citizen groups “roll back onerous local ordinances and to assist in defeating wasteful spending proposals by all levels of local government.”
When The Forum called Dorr for an interview, he initially said, “No comment” and “Before the election, it should be all about the committee. Sadly, you guys try to make it about me.”
However, upon further questioning, he did disclose that he’s run about 80 such campaigns to date in Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, South Carolina and Texas.
Dorr didn’t hesitate to point out how many of those bond referendums and operating levies he’s defeated.
“I have an 82 percent success rate for my clients,” he said.
A school superintendent in Spencer, Iowa, once called Dorr a “kiss of death” for bond issues, and some have described Dorr’s approach as radical.
A document outlining Dorr’s campaign strategies, gleaned from other school superintendents’ experiences, appears on a website for the St. Paul-based Parents United for Public Schools.
It states Dorr “uses tactics that are on the edge of slander,” taking any negative information he can gather on a school district – low test scores for example – and using it out of context to discredit the district.
It says Dorr often skews the school project’s construction costs to create mistrust.
Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, says it’s been several years since he’s heard of Dorr’s activities.
Amoroso considers some of Dorr’s tactics to be misleading, confusing, innuendo, even pure falsehood.
He said school districts are responsible for providing factual information about a need for resources.
“When you look at the opposition campaign,” said Amoroso, “they’re not held to the same standards.”
Dorr is said to save his “best propaganda” for the weekend before the vote, so he gets the last word.
“School districts then have no chance to respond to the false claims,” said Amoroso.
MASA even has a “Rapid Referendum Response” guide on its website to advise school districts on how to react when hit with a last-minute attack.
According to campaign finance reports filed by PR CARE, the committee paid an unnamed “consultant” $1,250 in early September, and received $5,775 in cash contributions to the “vote no” effort from Sept. 9 through Oct. 20.
Though Dorr does what he does for a profit, he says his driving purpose is his faith.
He states on his website, “While serving Christ, if I can serve my clients and help protect your community and your neighbors from the financial tidal wave coming – don’t we all benefit?”
District has its own outside influencer
In The Forum’s brief interview with Dorr, he pointed a finger at the marketing consultant hired by the Pelican Rapids School District and his motives.
That person is Jeff Dehler, a communications consultant and public schools advocate out of Crystal, Minn.
Dehler said he was first hired by the district to help get an operating levy passed in November 2011.
The district brought him back following the failed referendum in March, after hearing from voters that the project wasn’t explained well enough.
School Superintendent Deb Wanek says the district advertised in the local paper for people interested in being on a community task force, and ended up with a mix of older and younger residents, businesspeople, farmers and lake property owners.
“It was a fairly diverse group,” Wanek said.
Dehler said the group “did its due diligence” in identifying the high school’s needs, and the bond referendum is based on the group’s recommendations.
Dehler and a business partner compiled and packaged much of the bond referendum information that appears on the school district’s website.
According to a PR CARE postcard sent to residents, one service Dehler offers is canned, “carefully formulated letters to the editor for local proponents to personally sign.”
Dehler says that’s not true.
“I categorically deny having done that for any of my clients or any other entities or businesses I’ve worked for,” said Dehler, adding Dorr himself has been accused of using that tactic with voters.
The PR Care postcard goes on to list Dehler’s website as tinyurl.
Dehler says that appears to be a shortened, “customized” link to his website and an apparent attempt to discredit him.
Dehler worked as communications director for Robbinsdale Area Schools in 2007, when Dorr led a campaign to defeat an operating levy there.
He said Dorr sent postcards, mostly to senior citizens, criticizing schools for taking part in a program that bused students, many of them students of color, into the Robbinsdale district.
“There were racial overtones in that postcard sent to seniors that made them uncomfortable with the district,” Dehler said.
“I believe it was unethical and entirely inappropriate,” he said.
Who to believe?
Even the bond referendum’s $21.9 million amount is up for debate.
PR CARE’s literature claims the true cost is “$34.7 million of new taxes to cover the debt payments, principal plus interest.”
Some signs posted around the Pelican area urge a “no” vote on a
$33 million bond.
Superintendent Wanek wonders if those signs are actually left over from a previous failed vote in 2005 for a new high school and school renovations, which listed that $33 million amount.
A “vote yes” group called Moving Forward Pelican Rapids says it is checking with the state to see if PR CARE’s campaign info is legal, saying it’s false and misleading.
Don Perrin, a former school board member and business owner, says he and the Moving Forward PR group are anticipating a last-minute mailer from the PR CARE campaign that they’ll have to counter.
Perrin, who identifies himself as a conservative, said opponents of the bond don’t want taxes no matter what.
“Unfortunately, that’s the only way we can fix the things that need to be fixed,” Perrin said.
Another Moving Forward PR group member, Everett Ballard, said much of the high school building hasn’t changed since he was in school.
“The issues that the school has, they’re not going away,” he said.
Ballard, a business owner, said he supports the bond referendum because schools are a huge part of the Pelican Rapids community. His grandchildren, nieces and nephews all attend or will start school in the district.
Another couple of business owners don’t support the referendum, and have a “vote no” sign on the lawn to prove it.
Chris and Jody Menk, owners of Pelican Motel, say they’re taxed enough already.
“Don’t try to beautify the school on the backs of small businesses,” said Jody Menk, adding that it’s more about “keeping up with the Joneses.”
“They play on your emotions, but this is not for education of kids,” she said.
“Only a small percentage goes to that. A new gym doesn’t go to education.”
What’s in this project?
Superintendent Wanek admits that increasing taxes to support schools can be a tough sell, but she believes if people see the inside of the school firsthand, they will understand.
The district has been giving tours to the public, but she says only about 30 people have come through.
Those who do see a sprawling maze of a school.
“From the outside, you wouldn’t know it has 11 different levels,” Wanek said.
The original school, built in 1928, has been added on to five times, with the brick additions joined together by what have turned out to be poorly insulated connecting links.
“In the winter, frost collects on the doors,” Wanek said.
While voters have previously denied school upgrades, many proponents say delaying upgrades will only cost more.
“The longer they wait, the more likely those needs will become more urgent and more severe,” said Pat Overom of ICS Consulting, who helped the district develop the renovation plans.
The current bond project is about $3 million more than the proposal turned down by voters in March. The scope, which changed slightly, in addition to higher construction costs and bond rates made the project more expensive, Overom said.
The project addresses what the district describes as three key areas.
The repair phase covers deferred maintenance needs, including replacing roofs and energy-inefficient windows, ceilings, carpets and floor tiles.
The renovation phase covers remodeling of bathrooms, junior high classrooms and high school fine arts and science classrooms.
School district maintenance engineer Trevor Steeves says science lab areas, in particular, need safety upgrades.
“Back in the day, it was fine,” Steeves said, “but 30, 40 or 80 years down the road, things are not up to standards.”
The renew phase includes replacing the 1928 auditorium and building a new multipurpose cafeteria and commons space.
It would also provide a reconfigured main entrance and secure entry and a new gymnasium with elevated walking track for students and the public to use.
If the bond goes through, it would also eliminate what must be one of the most unusual problems a school could encounter.
According to Steeves, he has to bring a mower through the school hallways in order to cut the grass in a school courtyard that is hemmed in on all sides by brick walls.
A 1985 graduate of the high school, Steeves has done many of the repairs and “patchwork” himself, saving the district money.
He says he takes a lot of pride in his work, which makes it tough to highlight the school’s deficiencies.
But he believes the schools are the backbone of the community and are worth the investment.
District consultant Dehler says he has visited the Pelican Rapids High School a handful of times.
When “vote no” consultant Dorr was asked if he has been to the school, he replied “No comment,” but added, “I’m a vendor for the local people who know all about the school.”
In the words of state school administrators director Amoroso, it will all come down to how well informed voters are.
“All I ever wanted when I was a (local school) administrator was for the community to make decisions based on the facts,” Amoroso said.
“And then what the community desires is what you do.”
Robin Huebner | Forum News Service