Senate panel backs takeover of polygamist community's schools

Arizona Republic/February 23, 2005
By Paul Davenport

A legislative committee endorsed a bill that could allow a state takeover of Colorado City's school system as a senator said the polygamist community needs to stop victimizing young women.

The Senate K-12 Education Committee voted 6-2 for a bill backed by Attorney General Terry Goddard to allow the state Board of Education to request court appointment of a receiver for grossly mismanaged or insolvent districts.

The Senate bill (SB1476) and a similar House bill (HB2417) supported by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne are reactions to the recent financial troubles of the Colorado City Unified School District.

Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah, are dominated by members of the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a splinter offshoot of the mainline Mormon church, which disavowed polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates those who practice plural marriage.

The Colorado City district's teachers went unpaid for two months last year because the district ran out of money - a development which critics blamed on a bloated workforce and purchases that included a $220,000 airplane.

During Wednesday's Senate hearing, one committee member asked Superintendent Alvin Barlow whether the district pays at least some school bus drivers more than starting teachers.

Barlow said he couldn't provide specifics on salaries but said starting teachers are paid $18,500 annually.

Defending the district and its employees, Barlow said much of the district's troubles resulted from an enrollment plunge that saw two-thirds of the district's students leave for private and home schools.

The plunge occurred when sect members pulled their children out of the public school system.

"There's no intent for malfeasance," Barlow said. "The bill should not pass. Let's start out with helping the district, helping the students."

Sen. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, said state funding of Colorado City's public schools props up the polygamist community's economy and that lawmakers can't ignore the nature of that community.

"The real problem here is the victimization of young women," said Huppenthal, the father of two daughters. "This is really about creating pressure on you ... to coming closer to the norms of modern civilization."

Barlow urged the Senate committee's members to ignore news media reports critical of Colorado City and to visit the community to see its schools for themselves.

"Please do not rely on the distorted, warped media reports," Barlow said. "There is no community in all of this world that has greater regard for its children."

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