An increase in public school students in the polygamous cities on the Utah/Arizona border has forced the school district to purchase additional buildings to house the additional students.
Enrollment at the Colorado City Unified School District has grown by more than 100 students in the last year and a half, according to Superintendent Carol Timpson. For the upcoming school year, around 550 students are enrolled, which Timpson says is too many for the district's only building called the El Capitan School.
The district attributes the increase to natural growth, including families moving back into the community following the recession and those leaving the FLDS church, Timpson said.
The district, which is in Mohave County, Ariz., serves students in Colorado City, Ariz., Hildale, Utah and in the surrounding communities of Centennial Park and Cane Beds.
The area is headquarters for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints which in 2000, under leader Warren Jeffs, banned church followers from attending public schools.
Jeffs, 57, is serving a life sentence in Texas on convictions of sexually assaulting two underage girls but is said to still control his followers from behind bars.
"Warren Jeffs gave an instruction to the FLDS community to withdraw their children from the public school system and the school population dropped from 1,500 enrollment down to 300 to 400 in one fell swoop," said Jethro Barlow, a former member of the church who still lives in Hildale.
Barlow, an accountant, helps Utah officials manage the United Effort Plan Trust, the FLDS church's communal property trust that was taken over by the state in 2005 amid accusations that it was being mismanaged.
The Colorado City Unified School District recently purchased three buildings from the trust for approximately $430,000, according to Barlow.
"I don't think there's any doubt about the fact that this is right step," Barlow said about the transaction. "The property needs to go to its highest and best use."
The district plans to use the buildings, which were used as school houses before Warren Jeffs came to power, to start a stand-alone elementary school for preschool, kindergarten and grades one through three.
Because the buildings were former schools, the district believes it can transition elementary students to the buildings in about a year.
One of the buildings is already being used by the school district as the Early Learning Center for preschoolers and kindergartners. The other two buildings were under FLDS control and have been used recently by FLDS families as instructional centers as part of their home schooling.
"It's a combination of events," Barlow said about what driving the increased public school attendance. "The normal growth that a school district experiences, plus a migrating effect of those who are not being satisfied by the home school programs and are trying to back to the public school."