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Outsiders weigh in on B-E school vote

Paul Dorr1 / 2
Warren Schmidt2 / 2

If you Google the names Warren Schmidt and Paul Dorr, you will find plenty of positive and negative.

These two men have been involved in highly contentious school referendums, which has been the case with the Brandon-Evansville School District.

Schmidt, a former superintendent, was hired by B-E as a facilities consultant as it formed plans to replace two aging schools. Voters in the school district will decide a proposed $38.75 million K-12 school on Wednesday, Aug. 30.

Dorr, who operates Copperhead Consulting Services in Iowa, was hired by the B-E CARE Committee (Citizens Acting for Responsible Education), a group opposed to the referendum. According to its website, Copperhead provides services in political and financial matters designed to start rolling back the cost and spending patterns of local government. It operates in nine states from South Carolina to South Dakota and from Minnesota to Texas.

The proposed school, if the referendum passes, will be built in Brandon on land donated by Wayne Lund, a farmer who lives in the area.

Rothsay experience

The two men have faced off before. Dorr was the consultant for the opposition to a school bond while Schmidt worked in the Rothsay School District, Schmidt's most recent career stop before B-E.

The Rothsay School District ended up with two referendums for its pre-K-12 school — the first $24 million. It was voted down in December 2012. The second referendum, for $19, passed in May 2013.

Dorr's tactics drew criticism from some.

"Dorr's strategy is based on sowing mistrust between voters and school officials, which, coupled with the usual small-town rumor mill, can create hard feelings that last for years," said

John Reber, school board member from the Rothsay School District.

However, Dorr's involvement in the Rothsay campaign actually might have motivated and energized the pro-referendum voters, Reber said.

"In my opinion, the Rothsay referendum would not have passed if not for Paul Dorr," Reber said.

Schmidt also had his detractors.

After the first referendum, real-estate agents and agricultural land owners alleged that Schmidt and the school board had "induced them (voters) to vote in favor of a bond referendum by promising not to impose an excess levy if the referendum passed,," according to court documents.

According to a story in The Press of Pelican Rapids from March 26, 2014, the complaint alleged that the board's promise not to propose a $1,500 per pupil levy — if the bond-building levy was successful — constituted a "bribe."

A campaign complaint was dismissed with the Minnesota Court of Appeals eventually ruling that a letter sent to voters in the Rothsay district regarding the tax levy was mandated by a Minnesota law, was protected by the First Amendment and that it did not violate Minnesota law.

Why hire Schmidt?

B-E Superintendent Dean Yocum said Schmidt was hired because of his years as superintendent and his previous involvement in school building projects.

The B-E school board was actually in contact with Schmidt prior to hiring Yocum — who has been the superintendent since July of last year.

When Yocum was asked what impressed him about Schmidt, he said in an email, "His knowledge of the construction process and more so, his ability to move the process forward."

He added that Schmidt has several years of experience in education and that he cares deeply about providing a quality education to the students in the Brandon-Evansville School District.

"He has worked well with the staff, taking input on both the positive qualities and challenges of the district as it relates to the facility," Yocum said.

Why hire Dorr?

Don LeSage, who is the liaison for the B-E CARE Committee, said the group was formed by members of the community who felt that the school district and school board members were not going to listen to them. At that time, they decided to hire Dorr — and actually, they first heard his name from Schmidt.

During a committee meeting, Schmidt told the group about an Iowa firm specializing in defeating school bonds. Someone from the group pressed him for more information and LeSage said Schmidt told them Dorr's name.

"Even though Mr. Schmidt is trying to facilitate this proposed wasteful project that we feel would destroy families and businesses, we have to thank him for helping us get organized," LeSage said. "The B-E CARE Committee wouldn't be here if he'd kept quiet."

LeSage said that when they started this fight, it felt like they were in the dark and that their efforts to push back were not effective. For example, he said a simple records request to the school district took weeks and that many phone calls and emails to the Minnesota Department of Education were not returned.

"Now, we have someone that will not be passive aggressively ignored by administrators who are legally obligated to provide us with public records when they are requested," LeSage said.

When asked what the group expects of Dorr, LeSage said in an email, "Our community has been divided by outside architecture, construction management, and bond firms looking to plunder our district. They have tried to turn one town against another town, pitted blue collar against white collar, played upon people's sense of fairness and equality, and hijacked people's sense of charity toward children. All of this turmoil just to send millions to big city construction firms and put our district into 29+ years of debt.

"Our expectations of Paul are to help us keep this community united and to stop the division. Warren and the school board think 50 percent plus one vote is a responsible way to add $68 million in taxes? We see that as a community dividing proposal. Our ultimate goal is to unite this community and to fail this referendum with a 70 percent NO vote."

Thoughts from the state School Board Association

According to the Minnesota School Board Association's website, which included comments from superintendents in Minnesota and Iowa districts where Dorr has fought referendum campaigns, Dorr leaves a trail of divided communities with no apparent remorse.

In a 10-page document on the website, it states that Dorr is "committed to defeating bond referendums" and that although he has "very good legal sense" and "a radical approach," he "uses tactics that are on the edge of slander" and he will "bully his way around to get his way."

In the document, it also listed some of the tactics used by Dorr when he is working on defeating a referendum, which includes the following:

• Finds anything negative to use against the school district.

• Uses recent test scores to make the district look as bad as he can and skews information from the test scores.

• Creates mistrust in the district.

• Skews information on construction costs.

• Continually creates doubt.

• His literature is less than truthful.

In favor of Dorr

In an email response to the Echo Press, Dorr said, "I am instructed to decline this interview," adding that "Rarely have I been given fair treatment by Minnesota media."

Instead, he provided a name of someone who worked with him before on a school referendum - Matthew Romsdahl, treasurer of the St. James CARE Committee, which helped defeat several referendums in the St. James School District before one passed.

Romsdahl sent a letter to the Echo Press on behalf of the committee, signed by him and by Chad Lange, president.

In the letter, Romsdahl and Lange said that Dorr was one of the most honest, stand-up and personable gentlemen they had ever met.

"We were very impressed with Mr. Dorr's knowledge of the endless ways school districts use to pass referendums," it said in the letter. "We were also impressed with Paul's knowledge of engaging taxpayers, presenting messages, social media, print media and obtaining public information, which the school often doesn't want to present."

Lange and Romsdahl also noted that Dorr never pushed his own views but instead he listened to those who were part of the committee. They said Dorr has worked with them to understand the tactics the school district, the district's hired public relations firm, contractors, architects and bond salesman who would push for the referendum and thus line their own pockets.

These tactics include:

• Controlling meetings

• Leading questions

• Changing subjects

"Once we learned about all these deceitful measures they were easy to pick out during open public meetings and conversations," the letter said. It added that Dorr's views have "nothing to do with the merits of any referendum. Proponents of referendums want to distract voters and discuss Mr. Dorr's personal views instead of the merits of the referendum."

They also said in the letter that Dorr taught them to videotape public meetings, request public information, how to craft a meaningful message to taxpayers and many other useful insights.

The committee said if they had an opportunity to do it again, they'd hire Dorr again in a

heartbeat.

Schmidt's outlook

Schmidt said in an email response that he was a school superintendent for 42 years — 32 years as a full-time superintendent in four different Minnesota schools and 10 years as an interim superintendent in six schools.

He said he has been involved in six building referendums.

Schmidt believes in the philosophy that "one can never stay the same; either you are going ahead in this world or you are falling back."

He believes the same holds true for schools. The schools that develop good educational programs, have a strong curriculum, good extracurriculars, good facilities and a strong sense of pride are a magnet for young families and businesses.

On the other hand, he said, a stagnant school will face declining enrollment and poor programs and curriculum. These types of schools, he said, could eventually dissolve.

He said Rothsay is a prime example. Ten years ago, he said, enrollment was declining, the facility was neglected and pride was going downhill fast. But then it got turned around. The district worked on enrollment by offering free pre-school and an all-day kindergarten. And now, he said, they also have a child care center within the school.

"Five years ago, they (the school district) became bold and decided to try and convince the public to build a new facility. The struggle was immense but they succeeded," Schmidt said. "Today, the enrollment is the highest it's been in many years. The sense of pride is restored, the extracurricular program is alive and doing a lot better and the staff is busy making curriculum changes to meet the new demands of society."

He said they are offering online courses and are working in robotics and have 3D printers available for students to use.

"You walk into the facility and you can see a sense of pride among the staff, students and community," said Schmidt. "Did they pay a price? You bet they did and it will take 30 years to repay, but the price is worth it if you visit with the staff and the students."

Celeste Edenloff

Celeste Edenloff, a reporter for the Echo Press, has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from May of 1999 to February 2011, and is happy to be back and once again sharing the stories of the people in this community. Besides being a reporter, Celeste is a certified fitness instructor and enjoys teaching bootcamp classes through Snap Fitness. She also enjoys running and has participated in more than 170 races with her husband, Al, covering the 5K, 10K, 10-mile and half-marathon (13.1 mile) distances.

 

(320) 763-1242
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