Polygamy in Arizona: The Wages of Sin

Arizona polygamist leaders are using public funds to support religious schools and line their own pockets. The state's done nothing to stop them.

Phoenix New Times/April 10, 2003
By John Dougherty

Deloy Bateman begins each school day long before dawn.

He rousts five of his teenage children from bed at 2 a.m. An hour later, the clan arrives at the Colorado City public school. Soon, a few other kids join the group in Bateman's well-stocked science laboratory.

After two hours of preparation and studying, Bateman begins lectures on the first of a dozen classes he will conduct during the long day. They include pre-calculus, chemistry, earth science, electronics, plastics, physiology, physics and physical education.

Bateman doesn't work 16 hours a day for the money. After 20 years of teaching at the Colorado City Unified School District, his salary has risen to only $33,500 a year.

"We are dedicated to helping, plain and simple," he says. "That little statement pretty much explains my personality."

Ironically, as far as the fanatic polygamist Mormons who control this isolated northern Arizona community are concerned, Bateman may as well be teaching Satanism.

Colorado City, which hugs the Utah border north of the Grand Canyon, is a town where most of the residents don't believe in evolution, dinosaurs or that America sent men to the moon. It is a place where education beyond the eighth grade is deemed unnecessary by many - particularly for teenage girls who frequently are coerced into polygamous marriages to older men by the time they reach 16.

Bateman and a handful of other dedicated educators fight an astounding array of obstacles to fulfill their duties as public school teachers - chief among them hostile religious discrimination.

Despite the fact that most of the people living in the area practice a fundamental brand of Mormonism and embrace polygamy, a chasm deeper than that giant hole in the ground 60 miles to the south divides the community.

The dominant religious faction is controlled by the Prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) based in Colorado City. Clustered in the unincorporated community of Centennial Park a few miles to the southeast is a smaller group of fundamentalists known as 2nd Warders.

The FLDS considers residents of the 2nd Ward traitors to God, derisively branding them "heathens" and "apostates." An uneasy tension has stalked the two sects for 20 years - often spilling over into acrimonious exchanges revolving around the operation of the Colorado City Unified School District.

In July 2000, FLDS leaders exacerbated tensions when they ordered their followers to sever all unnecessary contact with apostates.

The FLDS directive triggered a massive withdrawal of fundamentalist students and teachers from the school district, leaving it populated primarily with 2nd Ward teachers and students.

But the FLDS didn't relinquish control of the schools. The district board, administrators and principals all kept their positions, as did most of the support staff of janitors, bus drivers and secretaries. But the FLDS ordered these faithful officials and employees to have little, if any, contact with the apostate teachers and students.

Unlike most teachers who fear losing their jobs, Bateman has openly criticized the FLDS-controlled school board and administrators for remaining in control of millions of dollars of public school funds after withdrawing their own children from classes.

"There can't be any ethics in this," Bateman says.

The clash between the two fundamentalist Mormon factions in the area is only the most obvious scar on the Colorado City public school system. The Mormon polygamists - as they have done with other taxpayer-financed programs, including food stamps and subsidized health-care - have tapped the public school system to help subsidize the cost of raising their very large families.

A six-month New Times investigation of polygamy in Arizona has uncovered an array of illegal and unethical actions by the FLDS-controlled school board, district administrators and school principals.

The investigation included an extensive review of thousands of pages of school district credit card records, travel vouchers, board minutes, district lease agreements and correspondence, all obtained under the Arizona Public Records Law.

New Times discovered that the Colorado City public school district -which receives more than $4 million a year in state and federal aid -is operated primarily for the financial benefit of the FLDS church and for the personal enrichment of FLDS school district leaders. At the same time, FLDS district leaders have taken actions that are detrimental to students and teachers who are not members of the dominant religious sect.

"Their priorities are not to go figure out how to best educate their students," says Kenneth Knudson, who ran for the school board last November as a non-FLDS member and was soundly defeated. "Their goal is to spend federal and state dollars locally."

Other findings include:

"The district maintains an illegal slush fund that allows FLDS board members, administrators and principals to charge personal expenses on district-issued credit cards. The unpaid credit card balance exceeded $23,000 on the November 2002 statement.

"Key FLDS personnel are issued expensive district-owned vehicles -including Ford Excursions, F-350 pickups and Chevy Suburbans -for personal use, a violation of state law.

"The district disposed of valuable assets, including supplies, phone systems and classroom buildings for the benefit of private, FLDS-operated schools.

"Religious discrimination has resulted in a serious breach in communication between 2nd Ward teachers and students and FLDS-controlled school board members and administrators.

"School board members steer district business to relatives.

"District administrators travel continually to often unnecessary meetings. They frequently take family members on business trips, charging meals, hotel and merchandise on district credit cards.

"The district has been unable to attract qualified teachers and has left high school classes unstaffed for months at a time.

"A state grand jury investigation of the school district initiated in December 2000 by former attorney general and now Governor Janet Napolitano has failed to lodge a single indictment.

Colorado City school district superintendent Alvin Barlow declined to comment on New Times' findings -as did members of the school board.

Local efforts to reform the district have failed not only because the school board is controlled by the FLDS but because the vast majority of voters are dominated by it. Parents', teachers' and students' concerns about issues ranging from course selection to tax rates are ignored.

"It's basically taxation without representation," says Mohave County School Superintendent Mike File. His office disburses public funds to school districts in the county, whose local boards decide how the money is spent. "This wouldn't go on in any other of the county's 12 school districts."

The district has more than 100 full- and part-time employees for 300 students, a 3-to-1 student-to-employee ratio grossly out of line with the county average of 26 students per full-time employee. There are about 30 full-time teachers.

The unusually high number of district employees has long alarmed File, but he says there is little he can do to force the district to cut back on the number of workers.

The Colorado City school district is the community's largest employer and has long played a crucial role in providing goods and services to the remote town of about 4,000 people on the Arizona Strip.

Allegations of improper spending by the district led to the infamous 1953 state police raid on the community, then called Short Creek. The raid failed to end polygamy -which is unconstitutional in Arizona and a felony in Utah -and proved to be a political disaster for Governor Howard Pyle, who lost his reelection bid.

The Short Creek raid has taken on near mythical proportions among polygamists, who can point to Pyle's political demise as a warning to any politician who might seek to abolish their illegal lifestyle.

In the ensuing five decades, only New Times has closely examined the school district's financial operations, despite obvious signals that something was grossly amiss.

The serious religious discrimination and financial problems embedded in the school district are forcing fiercely independent and extremely wary 2nd Ward polygamist leaders to request what is generally considered unthinkable -state intervention.

"I can't see how there would be any opposition whatsoever to the state taking over the school district," says Knudson, the failed non-FLDS school board candidate. "Nobody believes that any decision the district makes will be made for the best interests of the students."

Shun the "Heathens"

On July 16, 2000, FLDS leader Warren Jeffs issued a bombastic order from the pulpit. Speaking on behalf of his elderly father, Rulon Jeffs, who was then Prophet of the FLDS, Warren ordered the faithful to stop all contact with apostates.

"If you are choosing to socialize with apostates, to join with them in any way, you are choosing to get on the devil's ground," Warren Jeffs stated in the sermon.

"Our Prophet will lose confidence in any person who continues to harbor apostates [or] join with them. And he means business," Warren Jeffs warned.

Such threats are not taken lightly in Colorado City.

Disobeying the supreme spiritual leader's commands can mean losing home, family and job.

The FLDS -through a trust called the United Effort Plan -owns nearly all the land in town and routinely evicts families from their homes if they fail to obey religious commands.

The Prophet's immense power is rooted in his authority to assign wives -who are frequently underage girls -and to perform polygamous marriages ("Fornicating for God," March 20). Church faithful believe that a man must have at least three wives to reach the highest levels of heaven, called the Celestial Kingdom. As for women, they cannot enter heaven unless they stay in the very good graces of their husbands.

The Prophet routinely reassigns entire families to more favored men if a husband falls into disfavor with the "priesthood." Marriages are often arranged between first and second cousins, and men occasionally marry the stepdaughters of newly assigned wives. In some cases, sons will marry their stepmothers ("Bound by Fear," March 13).

Followers believe the Prophet is God's manifestation on Earth and submit to his will with strict obedience.

Within days of Warren Jeffs' sermon, more than 20 FLDS teachers submitted their resignations from the then-950-student Colorado City public school system. Support personnel and administrators who had limited, if any, contact with apostates were allowed to keep their jobs.

About 650 FLDS children were withdrawn from the public schools and enrolled in home schools and private FLDS schools.

The mass withdrawal of students attracted international media attention, but the coverage was superficial and fleeting. No one deigned to pry too deeply into the closed society that distrusts outsiders and carefully monitors all movements of any press that comes to town.

As the furor died down, the Colorado City school district began to systematically dismantle its classroom infrastructure -paid for with taxpayer dollars -and turn over the assets to the FLDS-controlled private schools, district records show.

Despite the decline in students, the district maintained its unusually high payroll packed with FLDS janitors, bus drivers, mechanics and secretaries - nearly all of whom receive far higher pay than the mostly 2nd Ward teachers and teacher aides, district records reveal.

In the ensuing two years after the FLDS withdrawal, district administrators, led by superintendent Alvin Barlow (who is paid $50,000 a year), plundered the district's treasury by running up thousands of dollars in personal expenses on district credit cards, purchasing expensive vehicles for their personal use and engaging in extensive travel. The spending spree culminated in December, when the district purchased a $220,000 Cessna 210 airplane to facilitate trips by district personnel to cities across Arizona.

The district's spending binge was fueled in part by a provision in state law that provides a financial cushion to schools in the event of a sudden decline in enrollment. It is no surprise that the Colorado City district benefited immensely from the provision, since Alvin Barlow -who at 30 years on the job is the most tenured school superintendent in Arizona -was keenly aware of it.

The state's "rapid-decline provision" allowed the school district to receive state funding for 949 children in fiscal year 2001, 785 children in fiscal year 2002 and 688 children in the current fiscal year that ends June 30, even though actual student counts in each of these years was closer to 300.

State Department of Education officials say the Colorado City school district received more than $1.4 million in rapid-decline subsidies in fiscal year 2002, and again in 2003. State records show the district received an additional $1.5 million in state aid for phantom students in fiscal 2001.

At a time when school districts around the state are facing severe budget cutbacks, the state's rapid-decline subsidy is projected to continue pumping millions of dollars into the district for students who no longer attend there through fiscal 2006.

Even with this state subsidy -which so far exceeds $4.3 million for phantom students -the Colorado City school district is on the brink of financial disaster.

The combination of maintaining an unusually high number of employees on the district payroll combined with rampant spending by district and school administrators has decimated the tiny district's budget.

"Where we are only two-thirds of the way through the year, we have overexpended our entire annual budget," district assistant business manger Oliver Barlow said at a school board meeting February 25.

"We need to not only reduce our expenditures to zero but cover the necessary expenditures from February through June."

Oliver Barlow, who is paid $48,000 a year by the district, suggested tapping a $1 million bank line of credit to cover the shortfall.

Landlorded Over

Alvin Barlow greets a New Times reporter on a cold winter morning with a friendly handshake and a question.

"Did you happen to see the accident on the mountain last night?" he asks, referring to a pickup truck that skidded off an ice-packed highway and smashed into a tree on the Kaibab Plateau near Jacobs Lake.

One of Alvin's many sons was in the truck, but luckily he was not seriously injured.

Accidents, illnesses and injuries loom large in Alvin Barlow's life.

He is said to have more than 30 children and at least half a dozen wives. Over the next several months of New Times' plowing through district records, two more events nearly claimed the lives of his children, which forced him to spend a great deal of time at a hospital in St. George, Utah.

A former teacher, Barlow shakes the hand of each of his four secretaries and four administrative aides every morning. He and his brother Dan, who has served as Colorado City's first and only mayor for 18 years, are the primary spokesmen for the town's polygamous society (Prophet Warren Jeffs, who assumed the role of spiritual leader after his father's death last September, rarely speaks to the outside world). The brothers carefully cultivate the city's image as a place steeped in traditional family values -despite widespread accounts that fundamentalists are pushing underage girls into polygamous marriages.

Alvin Barlow takes great pride in his ability to find bargains at state surplus sales and has dispatched large teams of students, teachers and parents to retrieve desks, tables and chairs from state offices for later use in Colorado City. Many of the items are eventually resold by the school district at garage-sale prices to private and church-run schools, district records show.

Barlow's public frugality, however, cannot mask the deep financial problems facing the school district.

The district Barlow oversees covers an immense, unpopulated area that has a very low assessed property valuation. The district is 25 miles wide and extends from the Utah state line to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Most of the land is controlled by the government, and no taxes are owed to the district for it. Thus, it has one of the highest tax rates in the state.

More than half of the taxable land in the school district is controlled by the FLDS' United Effort Plan. The UEP pays about $800,000 a year in property taxes to Mohave County for property it owns in Colorado City. The assessed valuation of UEP land is kept artificially low. Mohave County taxes many UEP properties at half the normal rate because occupied homes are rarely listed as fully completed, county records show.

Less than half of the $800,000 in UEP property taxes is redistributed to the school district. The district receives about $405,000 a year in local property taxes from Colorado City, Centennial Park and outlying areas. Local property taxes account for only one-tenth of the district's $4.2 million annual budget that comes primarily from state and federal sources.

For more than a decade, the UEP has recouped most -if not all -of its property taxes allocated to the school district through favorable leases with the district. The practice of funneling taxpayer money back to the UEP and other church entities permeates school district finances.

For decades, the depressed tax base prevented the district from raising enough money to build new school facilities. Instead, the district entered into leases for facilities that were built and owned by a UEP-controlled entity, the Colorado City Improvement Association.

By June 2000, the school district was leasing three association-owned buildings for the elementary and junior high schools, plus additional properties for storage facilities, a health-care building and a bus-maintenance barn.

The school district was paying more than $316,000 a year for the leases -which seemed outrageous even to members of the school board, who are ever mindful of offending UEP and church officials and running the risk of losing everything.

"These leases eat us up," said school board member Scott Jessop at a July 2000 board meeting.

The leases with the Colorado City Improvement Association cost the district at least $3.1 million between 1992 and June 2000, district records show.

But the lease deals -at least as far as students, teachers and taxpayers were concerned -were about to make a bad situation worse.

FLDS' Sweet Deal

The church leaders' demand that ties be severed with apostates came in July 2000, and it triggered a series of events resulting in the school district transferring property it had paid for to the Colorado City Improvement Association at a substantial loss.

The sudden withdrawal of 60 percent of its students left the district with more classroom space than it immediately needed.

But it was obvious that children from the large and ever-expanding polygamous families from the 2nd Ward, combined with others moving into nearby communities, would eventually fill up the classroom space.

As unfavorable as the lease agreements were to the district, they were providing space for this future population.

The district had funds from the state's rapid-decline subsidy that could have covered the costs of holding the empty classrooms for future use. That is, if that money had not been spent on personal expenses, excessive travel, capital purchases and abnormally high staffing.

Even so, there was no pressing financial reason to get rid of the three classroom buildings, since the district had already prepaid the leases through June 2003.

The prudent decision would have been for the district to hold on to the classrooms for future use. But its allegiance wasn't toward students, teachers and taxpayers.

It was toward the FLDS.

The 650 FLDS students needed somewhere to go to school, and the classrooms the school district was leasing from the church-controlled Colorado City Improvement Association were the obvious solution.

A month after Warren Jeffs' decree in July 2000, the school district terminated its lease on the junior high school, which wasn't scheduled to expire until June 2003. The district had prepaid $270,000 for the final three years of the lease, district records show.

Terminating the lease early cost the school district dearly. The Improvement Association refunded only $150,000 of the prepaid lease, according to district records.

Not only did the district lose about $120,000 on the lease, it wasn't compensated for a remaining steel-roofed shelter over the outdoor basketball courts and fire-alarm, telephone and landscape-irrigation systems left in place.

Within weeks, the junior high school was converted into a private, FLDS school.

This scenario was repeated in November 2000, when the district decided to terminate its lease on the David J. Broadbent elementary building, which also was owned by the Improvement Association.

The school district had prepaid a $720,000, eight-year lease on the Broadbent building in July 1995. The lease payment came from proceeds generated by $1.8 million in bonds the district issued to fund school facilities and purchase equipment. State law requires that bond proceeds be spent for only the uses specified.

The school district, however, didn't ask the Improvement Association to refund the $232,500 in cash left over from the lease money it had prepaid.

Instead, it asked the association to credit the $232,500 toward lease payments for the Marvin L. Darger elementary building, another facility the district was leasing from the association. The association agreed, and extended the Darger building lease through January 31, 2006. As with the Broadbent building, the district had prepaid the original Darger lease in 1995, in this case using $600,000 in bond funds.

Once again, the district left expensive improvements (landscaping and telephone and computer systems) in the Broadbent building and sought no compensation. And like the junior high school, the Broadbent building was soon occupied by a private FLDS school.

Then, at the same time it was relinquishing classroom space, the district held a surplus property sale on August 11, 2000. Sold were classroom and teacher desks, office chairs, chalkboards, playground equipment, room dividers, four vehicles, file cabinets, shelving, a driver's education simulator, typewriters, copy machines and bleachers -- just about everything needed to set up a private school.

The result of all this was that by November 2000, the FLDS-controlled Improvement Association -- without spending a dime -- had obtained two former public school facilities for use as private church schools.

In addition, the Darger building, which had extended its prepaid lease to January 2006, would fall under the FLDS' control in the fall of 2002.

But capturing the Darger building for use as a private school would come only after the state School Facilities Board agreed to invest $6 million in taxpayer funds to build a replacement school for the Colorado City Unified School District.

State Ripped Off

In February 2001, the Colorado City school district reached a preliminary agreement with the state School Facilities Board to build a new school for kindergartners through 12th graders on 34 acres of state trust land east of town near an industrial park. The agreement came after a year of negotiations between the district and the state over acquiring a new school.

The state agreed to put $6 million into the project, with the district picking up any additional expenses. The district qualified for the state-financed project because the Colorado City high school was located in a dangerous, substandard adobe building on five acres of district-owned land in downtown Colorado City.

The state board was well aware that the mass withdrawal of students had cut the district's enrollment from 950 to 300. But given the substandard condition of the high school and the district's low tax base that prevented it from raising enough funds to pay for another school, it decided to build the new, 600-student school for the district.

The district, however, did not notify students, teachers and parents of the likelihood that a new school would be constructed -- which later triggered angry outbursts from 2nd Ward parents over the site selected.

Arizona's plans to build the new school shocked Washington County, Utah, public school officials, who were struggling to keep open Phelps Elementary School in Hildale, which is adjacent to Colorado City across the state line.

The Phelps school also had been hit hard by the mass withdrawal of FLDS students and would be forced to close unless more students were found. For years, some Colorado City children attended the Phelps school through a tuition agreement between Washington County and the Colorado City school district.

In February 2001, Washington County school officials offered to sell or lease the Phelps school, with a capacity of about 400 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, to the Colorado City school district. That way, Arizona taxpayers wouldn't have to spend more than $6 million toward a new school.

"All you would have had to do is bus them across the state line," says Washington County School Superintendent Kolene Granger. "Why would you waste your money on a new building?"

Granger says the offer was rejected by the Colorado City school board, whose members even canceled the tuition agreement that allowed Arizona children to attend the Utah school.

Though County Superintendent File agrees with Granger that an arrangement to continue busing the Arizona kids across the state line could have been reached, the state left the decision to Colorado City officials.

With no other choice, Granger was forced to close the Phelps school in fall 2001. Last year, Washington County entered into a 10-year, $1 million lease/purchase agreement with the FLDS-affiliated Twin City Improvement Association to acquire Phelps.

Once again, a public school was acquired by an FLDS-controlled organization. But unlike the Colorado City school district that lost money on its transfer of public assets to church entities, Washington County is getting paid. Washington County can also terminate the lease/purchase agreement if the demand for a public school in Hildale reaches more than 100 students.

In December 2001, 2nd Ward parents finally learned of plans by the Colorado City school district to build the new school and were outraged that they had been kept in the dark.

The new school's location was more than three miles from Centennial Park, where most of the students and teachers live. No consideration was given to using land in that community for the school, parents complained at the December 2001 board meeting.

"This proposed location requires every single student to be bused," Kenneth Knudson complained to the board.

District records show that nearly all of the district's bus drivers are members of the FLDS, with most receiving overtime pay that increases their salaries to an average of about $30,000 a year -- much higher than the $20,000 annual salaries paid to most of the district's teachers (now predominantly from the 2nd Ward.).

Knudson notes that the district continued to employ about 100 people for a school district with only about 300 students.

"You are going to guarantee the financial doom of the district if you keep on doing what [they] are doing," Knudson warns.

Yet high school sophomore Anne Dockstader complained at the meeting that the high school had not hired a math teacher and that there were no substitute teachers when regular teachers were gone.

"There is no one in the classroom," she said. "Nothing gets done."

Earlier, Dockstader had sent a letter to state and county education officials complaining about the lack of qualified teachers in the Colorado City schools. The letter was signed by 41 other students.

Dockstader pointed out in her letter that the district had two certified math teachers on staff, but they had been reassigned to non-teaching jobs. Both teachers are members of the FLDS who had been ordered not to associate with 2nd Ward apostates.

At the December 2001 meeting, several parents demanded that school board members resign, noting that they have no children attending the public schools. Board members rejected the requests, and a special session was scheduled for the following week.

More than 140 people attended the special meeting. Typically, no more than a couple of citizens attend board sessions. Once again, resignation demands were rejected.

"If the people I represent don't like me, go to the polls and get someone else," board president F.L. Bistline, who has served on the board since 1960, told angry parents and teachers.

Bistline rejected claims that he and other board members were FLDS puppets.

"I know we have been accused of being governed by our church, which is not the case," he stated, before strongly hinting that board members seek advice from church officials.

"Now, as an individual, I think any one of us has the right and the opportunity to go and consult with any leading person we feel like can give us good advice. We don't have to take it."

Bistline told the crowd that he withdrew his kids from the public schools and put them in private schools because he doesn't "trust" state and federal mandates on how public schools should be run.

The following week, with no one from the public in attendance, the board agreed to construct the replacement school at a cost of $1 million to the district and $6 million to the state. It also approved construction of a $550,000 vocational-education building that would be paid for strictly out of district funds. Vocational education is valued highly by FLDS parents, whose children rarely finish high school.

The construction project was managed by Flagstaff Design & Construction, which issued subcontracts to FLDS-affiliated businesses, district records show. There is no indication that any 2nd Ward businesses received subcontracts. The 60,000-square-foot school and 5,000-square-foot vocational education building were built in record time and opened in August 2002.

But there were immediate problems. The school provided far more space for its few high school students than for its much larger elementary school population. Even before the first elementary students entered the classrooms of the new school, teachers warned Superintendent Alvin Barlow that there would be immediate overcrowding.

"We need to get additional classrooms, for there is absolutely no room for growth in the elementary, yet we are locked into that facility for however long before we can expand," teacher Carol Hammon warned the board at its August 26, 2002, meeting.

Alvin Barlow ignored the space complaints and proceeded with plans to terminate the lease on the Darger building, which of course could have been used for elementary pupils, particularly since its lease was paid for three and a half more years.

"We don't need the Darger building," Alvin Barlow told school board members on September 11, 2002.

Barlow then presented a plan to return the Darger building to the FLDS' Colorado City Improvement Association on terms more favorable to the association than to the district.

A week later, Barlow signed an agreement to return Darger to the association and forfeit $198,700 in lease prepayments that had been made using bond proceeds.

In addition, the district agreed to transfer $108,800 in prepaid Darger lease funds to cover future payments on the bus-maintenance facility and on storage lockers -- also owned by the association.

Like the junior high school and the Broadbent buildings two years before, the Darger building would soon become a private FLDS school.

Two years after Warren Jeffs had issued his call to sever ties with apostates, the Colorado City school district had terminated prepaid leases on three well-equipped school buildings and had waived nearly $330,000 in lease payments.

The school district has one remaining classroom building that occupies Improvement Association property. The district pays a $1,200-a-year land lease for ground beneath the Title I building, which was constructed with federal money awarded to the district for special-education needs.

The district-owned Title I structure was designed to be movable. However, after nearly $500,000 in improvements, district officials say it would cost more to move it than to build a replacement. The building is adjacent to the Broadbent and Darger facilities.

If the district's previous pattern of transferring public school assets to the FLDS continues, it wouldn't be surprising to see the church-controlled Improvement Association obtain the Title I building when the land lease with the district expires on June 30 of this year.

Meanwhile, there are already 350 students at the new school, which opened eight months ago. With a capacity of 600, it won't be long until it's bulging at the seams.

"Our classrooms are [getting] physically maxed out," high school social sciences teacher Jonathon Hammon told the school board in February. "We are not in decline anymore."

Perks of Polygamy

Last August 17, Colorado City school district business manager Jeffrey Jessop loaded up the district's recently purchased $38,000 Ford F-350 pickup truck with another adult and four kids and set out on a cross-country trip to Georgia.

The odyssey was financed by the school district.

The travel was justified as a district expense because Jessop was driving to Georgia to pick up a piece of equipment needed for the school.

That the propane oxygenator seemingly could have been shipped by commercial freight in less time and at lower cost didn't stop Jessop and the gang from hitting the road at 5 p.m. on a Saturday and embarking on a circuitous cross-country route that took them first through Colorado, Kansas City and then northerly to Nauvoo, Illinois.

Once a stronghold of church founder Joseph Smith, Nauvoo looms large in Mormon history. Many Mormons make pilgrimages there at least once in their lives.

Jessop and his entourage rang up hotel bills of $144 in Pueblo, Colorado, $162 in Kansas City and $142 in Nauvoo. The group lingered in Illinois, spending $90 at a hotel in Fairview Heights, just outside of St. Louis. After four nights on the road, Jessop got serious and drove straight to Marietta, Georgia, where he picked up the propane equipment. The group spent another $90 for a hotel room for one night.

With the apparent religious pilgrimage accomplished and the machinery loaded on the truck, Jessop and his crew blasted across the southern United States for 44 hours to Carlsbad, New Mexico, where the group booked two rooms for $128. The trip ended two days later back in Colorado City. They got back just in time for the equipment to be installed for the first day of school.

Besides hotel bills totaling $803, the trip cost the school district $309 for gasoline and $299 for meals. The total outlay was $1,412, according to Jessop's travel voucher, which listed the expenses of the kids and the other adult.

Jeffrey Jessop's summer jaunt -- for personal and dubious business reasons -- is typical of the district's travel policy.

In some cases, there is no doubt that travel was personal, such as when high school principal Lawrence Steed charged $300 to his district-issued credit card during his vacation last July to Canada.

School district records document an amazing amount of travel conducted by district administrators and principals. There aren't many weeks of a given year when somebody working for the district isn't in Phoenix, Kingman, Flagstaff, Tucson or Las Vegas. In some instances, the same employee will make the 800-mile round-trip drive from Colorado City to Phoenix twice in one week, records show.

The relentless travel hasn't gone unnoticed by Arizona Department of Education and state School Facilities Board officials.

"I would say they travel more than almost any other school district in the state," Lyle Friesen, the Department of Education's finance director, says of Colorado City school officials.

Friesen adds that the travel by the Colorado City employees has often been unnecessary; the issues easily could have been resolved by telephone or through e-mail.

The situation got so ridiculous that secretaries at the School Facilities Board tended to laugh about how often the Colorado City district officials -- sometimes with multiple wives in tow -- would show up unexpectedly at state offices.

The expense of all this travel, however, is no joke for taxpayers.

The district refused to produce its line-item for travel expenses for this article, but credit card receipts and travel vouchers indicate they have exceeded $50,000 a year.

This is far more than the $8,000 annual travel budget for the superintendent of the Washington County, Utah, public schools -- who oversees 30 schools, 20,000 students and has a $100 million-a-year budget. Superintendent Granger says she has spent only $3,158 on travel this year.

Colorado City school district travel records show that employees frequently stay at $100-a-night-and-up hotels and that they ring up expensive meal tabs for themselves and their frequent guests (who usually are not identified by name on travel records).

Along with the F-350, four-wheel-drive pickup assigned to Jeffrey Jessop and a $32,000, 2000 Ford Excursion handed to Superintendent Alvin Barlow, the one-school Colorado City district owns an additional 13 vehicles, including five Chevy Suburbans.

Nearly all of the vehicles are handed out to administrators, principals and support personnel and are used for district as well as personal needs. Superintendent Alvin Barlow says the district does not require employees to keep track of personal miles driven and allows employees to take the vehicles home.

At the same time, the district does not list personal use of district vehicles in its employee contracts, thereby allowing workers to escape from paying state and federal taxes on the benefit.

State law mandates that school district vehicles are for official use only.

The large number of district vehicles issued to employees seemed to concern school board member W.H. Meldrum at a January 19, 2002, meeting.

"Let's figure out a way we can do it so it is legal and right," he said to fellow board members. "That's all I'm asking. I've brought this up two or three times before, yet we go right on doing the same thing."

Board president Bistline also expressed worry about vehicle use.

"I am real concerned about the appropriate use of vehicles," he told Superintendent Barlow.

But the two board members must not have been concerned enough, because a minute or two later they voted along with the rest of the board to purchase another vehicle -- the F-350 pickup truck now assigned to Jessop, who is paid $41,700 annually.

Free use of a large vehicle is a substantial benefit for the average polygamist, who has a very large family to transport.

Not only did select district employees receive free vehicles, they also got free gas, insurance and maintenance, courtesy of their public employer.

Superintendent Barlow charged more than $2,700 in gas on school district accounts in 2002 for his Ford Excursion. He also got at least $1,385 in repairs on the Excursion that were paid by the district. But because of the lax recordkeeping, it is impossible to tell how often Barlow used the vehicle for personal use.

Travel and credit card records show that Barlow typically made several trips a week to St. George, Utah, where he frequently charged up to $50 on his district credit card for food. (Barlow seems to particularly love pie; he has unpaid credit card charges to Frontier Pies for more than $230 dating back to September 2001.)

District credit cards carry a $60,000 limit, and the school board has been aware that holders are using the cards for personal expenses since at least 1999. The practice has led to the ballooning, unpaid credit card balance that topped $23,000 in late 2002.

Arizona school districts are prohibited from carrying unpaid credit card balances and incurring interest charges, says Laura Miller, accounting services manager with the state auditor general.

"They would actually need to pay off the full balance every month so they are not incurring interest and finance charges," she says.

Records show that the district's Wells Fargo credit card balance has not been paid off since March 2001, resulting in $2,800 in finance charges through November 2002.

Part of this interest expense resulted from potentially illegal personal credit card charges amassed by board president Bistline, Superintendent Alvin Barlow, business manager Jessop, assistant business manager Oliver Barlow, high school principal Lawrence Steed, school counselor Steven Barlow and elementary school principal Kimball Barlow.

Stresses Miller of the Auditor General's Office, "Personal use of district credit cards would not be an item that is allowable."

Superintendent Barlow leads the way with more than $5,000 in unpaid personal credit card expenses from May 2001 through November 2002, district records show. He tallied most of the expenses on meals and hotels. Many of the personal expenses were incurred at the Mark Twain Restaurant, in Hildale -- the only sit-down, formal dining establishment in the Colorado City area.

District business meetings are routinely conducted at the local restaurant. Credit card records show several thousand dollars in charges since March 2001, which could be a violation of state spending laws.

"That type of expenditure is something that would be a possible gift of public money," Miller says.

Before the district had the Wells Fargo account, it issued American Express credit cards that were apparently used illegally by district officials.

For example, school board president Bistline, in January 1999, put $160 in charges for a personal vacation to Caliente Hot Springs, Nevada, on his district American Express card, district officials admit. Principal Lawrence Steed charged another $176 in personal expenses on his district American Express card at the same resort a month later.

Credit card records also show school district officials purchasing tens of thousands of dollars' worth of office supplies and computer and electronic equipment in the last two years. They routinely bought hundreds of dollars of items at retail stores on single shopping trips, despite agreements with Mohave County to purchase most school supplies in bulk at a discounted rate.

Though a detailed audit beyond the scope of the Arizona Public Records Law would be required to make such a determination, several teachers have expressed concern that district materials are ending up in the FLDS' private schools. School district storage rooms are adjacent to the Darger and Broadbent buildings, the former public schools that were later turned over to the Improvement Association to become private schools.

One teacher said in a taped interview that a colleague was teaching mathematics in one of the private schools while on the public payroll.

In addition, the teacher from the 2nd Ward said, "[that FLDS teacher] was using the district's supplies and copiers to get ready for his math class."

Ironically, the district employee and FLDS member refused to fill the lingering math teacher vacancy at the public high school.

"He absolutely refused to teach any of our students because of his religious decree not to," the 2nd Ward teacher says.

There is no doubt that district employees occasionally spend time during the work day at the private schools. Superintendent Barlow was seen one afternoon driving his district vehicle to the old junior high school building to chat with private school students and play basketball during district business hours.

The school district also appears to be giving away space in its office buildings to private Colorado City businesses. New Times found at least two businesses operating in the school district building that do not have lease agreements with the district.

In fact, such private use of school district property has been going on for years, says Martin Black, a longtime district mechanic.

Black says several Colorado City residents, including the owner of an automotive-repair business, have been using school-bus-maintenance barn equipment to repair private vehicles on weekends and often during district business hours.

Though the repairs have "nothing to do with the schools," Black says, "they still do it."

None of the unscrupulous expenditures surprises Deloy Bateman.

"It's been going on forever," he says.

Most of the town's inadequately educated citizenry doesn't understand the proper use of public money. Plus, district officials are considered above reproach by most fundamentalist Mormons in the area.

"They have been driving the cars around for so long [that] nobody thinks twice about it," Bateman says.

Once a loyal FLDS foot soldier, Bateman broke away from the church a few years ago after religious leaders unsuccessfully tried to take away four of his children by his second wife. Bateman had grown up in the home of the late Prophet Leroy Johnson.

He was sent to college by Johnson, a rare opportunity for anyone from Colorado City. But Bateman dared to challenge Johnson's successor, Rulon Jeffs, over custody of the children and was branded an apostate.

While the district has issued vehicles to FLDS faithful willy-nilly, Bateman says it has turned down his requests to borrow a car or truck to take students on geology field trips. The result is that he has dipped into his meager teacher's pay to finance transportation for the frequent excursions.

Cessna for Sonny

The Colorado City school district ranks last in the state in teacher pay, with starting yearly salaries hovering at about $20,000.

Superintendent Barlow has long told teachers struggling to raise families on the pittances they are paid that the district is impoverished because of its limited tax base.

But in a school district where apostate students were forced to raise money for a day trip to see The Wizard of Oz, the FLDS-controlled school board manages to come up with money for some of the most extravagant expenses imaginable for its favorite sons.

In December, the school board voted to purchase something few, if any, other school districts in the country would even consider buying -- a $220,000 airplane, in this case a Cessna 210.

Board president Bistline's son, Ladell, discussed the possibility of the district's acquiring an aircraft during a meeting with assistant business manager Oliver Barlow in the spring of 2002, school board minutes show.

Ladell Bistline is a pilot and was already getting paid $50 an hour by the district to fly its personnel to and from alleged business meetings. The district was leasing a plane for $156 an hour for the trips.

F.L. Bistline at first expressed serious reservations about buying the plane from local businessman Con Holm. He noted that the district had just approved construction of the $7 million K-12 school, a $550,000 vocational-education building and purchased of a couple of $80,000 school buses.

But other members of the board insisted that a plane could reduce overall travel costs because of the long distances traveled by district employees. Bistline's opposition was short-lived. Last June, the board president announced at a meeting that he had decided it was a good idea to purchase the aircraft that his son would be paid by the district to fly.

Soon, according to transcripts, Bistline became the strongest supporter of purchasing a plane, suggesting at a June 21 meeting that the board might purchase his son's smaller Cessna 172 aircraft for $60,000, if the larger Cessna 210 was deemed too expensive.

Other board members insisted that the larger aircraft made more economic sense, and Bistline pushed to close the deal on Holm's plane immediately.

"It will take us three or four weeks to orchestrate the process," assistant business manager Oliver Barlow cautioned the board, reminding Bistline that the law requires public bids to be taken.

Not surprisingly, only one bid came in -- from Con Holm.

Ladell Bistline then inspected the plane and discovered a few structural and cosmetic problems. At a September meeting, F.L. Bistline moved to buy it for $200,000, toss in an additional $20,000 for repairs and upgrades and sign a pilot contract with his son.

The school board voted in favor of its president's motion, and the deal was done -- in clear violation of state conflict-of-interest laws.

AG's Probe Lagging

The Arizona Attorney General's Office initiated a grand jury investigation into the Colorado City schools in December 2000. The investigation initially focused on allegations that district-paid teachers were working in the private schools.

The investigation broadened in July 2001, when the grand jury demanded the district's expenditure reports and all employee contracts dating back five years.

Superintendent Alvin Barlow retained Phoenix attorney Charles Ditsch to represent him personally in the case. Ditsch has defended Colorado City polygamists in cases involving religious and lifestyle issues.

The school district has retained Phoenix attorney Barry Mitchell to respond to several grand jury subpoenas.

The grand jury so far has done little more than subpoena records, and the AG's Office has conducted only a few telephone interviews, records show.

The AG's Office had not even sent an investigator to school district offices to review files by press time for this article.

Also, there is no indication that the grand jury has requested credit card records and travel vouchers, much less that it has reviewed the propriety of the district's transferring classroom facilities to the church-controlled Colorado City Improvement Association -- which turned them into private, religious schools.

The assistant AG leading the investigation, Leesa Morrison, left the Attorney General's Office earlier this year to become head of the state Department of Liquor Licenses and Control. Nevertheless, sources say the state grand jury is continuing to investigate the school district.

Mohave County School Superintendent File says credit card expense information obtained by New Times confirms suspicions many state educators had about the Colorado City school district. File says he is considering asking Mohave County Attorney William Eckstrom to initiate his own investigation into the Colorado City district for apparently abusing public funds.

Any investigation into the school district may present a conflict of interest for Eckstrom, who as county attorney has represented the Colorado City district for many years. Eckstrom told New Times that Superintendent Alvin Barlow is a longtime professional associate.

Eckstrom says he has informally met with school district officials, asking Alvin Barlow to submit in writing -- with supporting documentation -- details of district employees' use of school credit cards and vehicles for personal reasons.

After reviewing the district's response, Eckstrom says, he will determine whether the matter can be handled internally or if it warrants a criminal investigation.

Because of his relationship with Barlow, Eckstrom says he would recuse himself should criminal prosecution prove likely.

"If it comes back to me that these guys violated state law, I would refer it to another agency."

The information uncovered by New Times has been unsettling to the veteran prosecutor.

"I'm surprised and disappointed," Eckstrom says.

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