Colorado City can't pay its teachers

Arizona Republic/October 30, 2004
By Joseph A. Reaves

Board members in charge of public schools in the nation's largest polygamous community can afford their own airplane but can't come up with the cash to pay their teachers this month.

The paradox came to light this week when state and county officials confirmed the Colorado City Unified School District has been bouncing payroll checks since Oct. 18.

The cash-flow crisis, caused by the loss of a $950,000 line of credit, is the latest in a series of fiscal setbacks and embarrassments for the district, which oversees schools in a remote stretch of the Arizona strip, on the Arizona-Utah line.

In the past two years, Arizona's education superintendent and the superintendent of Mohave County schools have requested investigations of the district's finances, the state Auditor General's Office has cited district officials for failing to meet deadlines about how they spend their money and critics have questioned why the district spent $226,000 to buy a private airplane.

"This is outrageous," said Mike File, superintendent of schools for Mohave County, a longtime critic of the Colorado City board.

"I kept telling people for years the School Board and the administration up there was a snowball rolling downhill. Well, now it's come crashing down and it's going to be a hell storm."

Alvin Barlow, superintendent of Colorado City schools, failed to respond to requests from The Arizona Republic for comment.

In meetings this week, he told File and Deborah Herbert, chief civil deputy of the Mohave County Attorney's Office, that the district was trying to get an advance of funds from the Arizona Education Department to cover the shortfalls.

Tom Horne, superintendent of public instruction, acknowledged Friday that he was contacted by Colorado City school officials about a possible advance on state funds that normally would be released in December. He said he denied the request.

"It is discretionary and I used my discretion," Horne said.

Colorado City and the neighboring community of Hildale, Utah, are headquarters of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway sect, which, unlike the mainstream Mormon church, continues to practice plural marriage.

Critics of the sect claim its leaders use polygamy to justify a wide range of evils from child rape and underage marriage to welfare fraud and bilking public payrolls.

FLDS faithful, who number from 6,000 to 10,000, pledge unquestioned loyalty to the sect's self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs, who controls every economic and social enterprise in Colorado City and Hildale.

The school district is a prime example. All 20 of the administration's staff belong to FLDS, but none of their children attends public school. The 350 students and 40 teachers whose paychecks have bounced come from the nearby community of Centennial Park, which is home to yet a different breakaway polygamist sect.

FLDS children have been largely home-schooled since 2000, when Jeffs ordered them all pulled out of public schools.

File said he warned Colorado City officials several weeks ago that they needed to get moving on paperwork to qualify for various funding programs because a bank was preparing to cut off its $950,000 line of credit. Then, about 10 days ago, he started hearing some of the district's checks for the pay period that ended Oct. 15 were bouncing.

He met this week with Barlow and Jeffrey Jessop, business manager for the Colorado City school district, and said he was convinced the fiscal troubles would continue into the next biweekly pay period that ended Friday.

"I believe the district may not have sufficient funds in its accounts to pay the warrants at this time," File wrote Friday in a letter mailed to Colorado City's school employees.

A "warrant" is the formal term for a government paycheck. It is a voucher, or guarantee of payment.

Herbert said Arizona law ensures the warrants will be paid but only when the district clears up its cash-flow problems. In the meantime, teachers and other workers will accrue "up to 10 percent interest" on the back pay they are owed.

File said the trust that controls the religious sect and owns most of the real estate in Colorado City and Hildale paid $465,000 in property taxes this week.

Those property taxes go toward funding the public schools, but File said the money would do little to ease the financial crunch.

"All warrants get in line and get paid off as they are presented," File said.

"The district has $264,000 of insufficient-funds checks out there now. And they still have the payments on the airplane."

Board members took possession of a Cessna 210 two years ago. They said at the time the plane was needed for business reasons because the district is so isolated.

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