Swiftboat Torpedoes Robbinsdale School Levy

November 07, 2007 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

A shadow campaign led by anti-public education zealot Paul Dorr used lies, racism and fear to sink Robbinsdale's school district levy referendum on Tuesday.

Robbinsdale District 281 asked voters to prop up insufficient state funds by adding $624 per student for 10 years onto the existing $848 levy. The question failed 10,733 to 9,660, or 53 percent to 47 percent, one of about a third of school levy campaigns statewide that went down to defeat Tuesday.

This was the first time Robbinsdale voters have turned down a school levy request - the last was in 2001 - and pro-levy campaigners put the blame squarely on Dorr.

"Dorr's tactics won," said RASVoteYes co-chair Robin Smothers. "Playing on the fear of crime and gang violence and minority students in our district resonated with our residents. We tried to prepare for Dorr every way we could, but we never thought he would stoop to racism."

Dorr, of Ocheyedan, Iowa, has vowed to end public education. As a consultant, he has assisted more than 40 anti-levy campaigns in five states, defeating 80 percent of them.

Here's what Dorr has wrought in Robbinsdale: $4 million was cut this year. Without the levy, $4.5 million will be cut next year and $5 million more the year after that - in all, 15 percent of the $85 million annual budget.

In the next two years, 80 teachers will lose their jobs. Class sizes will jump an average of four students per classroom. Forty percent of the athletic budget will be cut, including all middle school sports and several low-participation varsity sports. Gifted and talented, media and health programs will be eliminated or diminished. Activity fees, kept low to encourage participation, will skyrocket.

"I think when the community wakes up and sees what this did to our kids, they're going to regret their decision. They lost sight of the big picture," said school board chair Patsy Green. "These are serious cuts. The quality of education can't help but go down."

When Dorr made his usual opening gambit months ago - asking the district office for a raft of public documents - the levy campaigners steeled for a fight. They read information gathered by the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. They found copious documents on the Internet. They interviewed people who had previously battled Dorr, including officials in Orono, Howard Lake-Waverly, Lyle, Blooming Prairie, Wells, St. James and Lake-Crystal, among others.

RASVoteYes decided to saturate the community early with a pro-levy message to counteract Dorr's most devastating tactic, a last-minute barrage of distorted literature and phone calls to get out the anti-levy vote.

"We thought if our literature landed first, then it will be a Teflon kind of thing, with Dorr's literature bouncing off. In light of the result, it's a tactic we would advise other groups to revisit," said Lynne Osterman, a RASVoteYes co-chair.

They made more than 75 presentations to community organizations and in private homes. They ran a phone bank through much of October. Lawn signs were placed, doors were knocked, literature was mailed. High school alumni volunteered their services, canvassing undecided voters and putting a plea for the levy on YouTube. Most labor unions with members in the district supported the levy. A rally with hamburgers, inflatable rides and cheerleaders drew more than 400 supporters.

Cash came in to support the levy campaign, but not because of Dorr's involvement, said RASVoteYes treasurer John Heinrich. The amount raised was about the same predicted before Dorr entered the campaign. The Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers made the biggest single contribution, $17,500. Another $6,900 was left over from the last levy effort. Superintendent Stan Mack and school board member Paul Magnuson donated $1,000 each. Another 142 donors gave $100 or less. No donations of more than $100 came from outside Minnesota. Heinrich said $42,000 was collected and $41,000 was spent.

Meanwhile, the anti-levy 281CARE (Citizens Acting for Responsible Education) deployed lawn signs and three billboards costing about $4,000 each. The group also placed several unsigned small ads in the weekly Sun-Post newspaper. The phone number listed led to an answering machine. Messages left were not returned. Several blogs posted opinions about the levy, but no names were given.

Three men from 281CARE talked about the levy on the local access cable TV program "Vicki's Parlor," but didn't offer their names. The group's finance reports were signed by Ron Stoffel of Crystal. Calls to his home were not returned. Dorr, reached at his business in Iowa, said he doesn't talk about campaigns. Finance reports show the largest donations were $2,500 each from J. Denny of Robbinsdale and J. Noonan of Plymouth.

Although the Republican Party was not involved in the campaign, Osterman, a former GOP state representative, said she believes 281CARE phone calls were made using a list of Republicans and not Democrats.

281CARE's main attack came in the final weekend. It sent literature to every home in the district and launched an automated telephone campaign one day before the election.

Both the literature and phone calls contained half-truths and lies, pro-levy organizers said. One accusation was that the district was recruiting minority students from north Minneapolis and paying for taxis to bring them to Robbinsdale. The literature then blamed this for increased violence, gang activity and rising special education costs.

All this is false: The district doesn't recruit Minneapolis students and doesn't pay for their transportation; violence and gang activity haven't risen and special education costs have not gone up because of these students. Mack said 1,300 students from 35 districts are enrolled in Robbinsdale schools, while 1,100 district students use open enrollment to attend schools elsewhere.

However, most students from North Minneapolis who enroll in Robbinsdale are African-American. By using them on their literature, school and campaign officials say 281CARE is exploiting bigotry.

"We're dealing with race-baiting here," Mack said.

"This is overt racism," Smothers said. "Appealing to bigotry is so far off our radar, we never even considered it would be a factor in the campaign."

Monday's automated telephone message claimed a phonics program could replace teachers who work with non-English speaking students. This is false and absurd, Smothers said.

The district also was accused of wasting money on two new assistant superintendents. Smothers said they replaced two other executives who left the district -- at a salary savings of $60,000 a year.

Organizers said no one saw Dorr in the district. Other than Stoffel, no one publically associated themselves with 281CARE. RASVoteYes organized a forum about two weeks before the election. More than 300 people showed up, but no one from 281CARE agreed to speak.

The combination of anonymity and distorted information confounded levy advocates.

"We were up against a mean-spirited group of people who submarined the school district," Green said. "Our message was based on facts and truth and we thought that would appeal to level-headedness and common sense. They appealed to hysteria and fear, and when we called them on it (at the forum), they didn't show up."

Said Smothers: "We did everything right. We put out a positive campaign against an organization that won't debate, won't defend their position, won't come out of the shadows. They aren't bound by ethics and they admit it. Dorr said he will do whatever it takes to beat schools."

RASVoteYes efforts to counteract Dorr's 11th-hour campaign failed. Their automated phone system broke down and only 20 percent of RASVoteYes supporters were urged to get out and vote. Osterman said that may have made the difference in the election results, but she also acknowledged that the levy proponents' entire strategy may have been flawed.

"We thought if we nailed down our folks early, they wouldn't budge," she said. "If we motivated people who normally would vote yes, if we took the time to show them how the levy would benefit schools, then we thought we could have the number of votes to win. We knew Dorr was coming, but we didn't counter like we could. We thought voters would see right through him."

Will the district try for a levy next year? All the chief organizers said they were tired of the fight. Smothers and Osterman said they wouldn't chair an effort next year. Green said the school board will make its cuts first, then consider trying to get more money.

Perhaps the best tactic to beat Dorr and his ilk is to have a funding system that doesn't put 15 percent of a school district's budget up for grabs. Until Gov. Tim Pawlenty agrees to pay schools what they need, then districts like Robbinsdale will fight campaigners like Dorr and they will continue to lose, making Minnesota's education system second class. True Minnesotans will learn from Robbinsdale's experience, go to the Capitol and make sure this doesn't happen again.
 

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