Lawmakers approved a bill giving the state power to take over any Arizona school district that "grossly mismanages" its money, and state officials said their first target would be the financially crippled Colorado City Unified District.
In October, the attorney general found himself powerless to shut down Colorado City Unified after the district began bouncing teacher paychecks despite buying its own airplane.
The new law allows the state to appoint a receiver who can fire or suspend a district's superintendent and override a district governing board's decisions and contracts. The law protects working, licensed teachers from immediate dismissal.
The legislation passed the state Senate and House, and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said he expects Gov. Janet Napolitano to sign the bill into law.
Goddard called it disappointing that lawmakers didn't add an emergency clause, meaning the law will not take effect until 90 days from the last day of the legislative session. Goddard said his office would "as quickly as possible" petition the Arizona State Board of Education to appoint a receiver to take over Colorado City Unified.For three years, the 350-student district at the Arizona-Utah line hasn't paid teachers or vendors on a consistent basis and has missed state and Mohave County deadlines to account for its spending.
"They've abdicated, in part, their financial obligation to the public, and the purpose of receivership is to fix that," Goddard said Thursday. The law is designed to keep schools open for students while the receiver repairs the financial problems. The receiver remains in charge until the Arizona auditor general declares the district has been in working financial order for a year.
Colorado City Unified is $1.5 million in debt at 6 percent interest to the Arizona School Risk Retention Trust, a corporation that insures Arizona schools.
The Retention Trust has been covering checks to prevent lawsuits, a trust official reported in April.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne worked with Goddard to create the bill but supported a broader version that would have allowed the state to step in if a district had "grossly mismanaged its other duties" beyond just financial. But Horne said he's pleased the law gives the Arizona State Board of Education, and not the courts, power to appoint a receiver. A pool of receivers most likely would include former district superintendents and county schools superintendents, Horne said.
"They would add to the pool that person best suited for the job," Horne said.
Colorado City and the neighboring Hildale, Utah, are home to about 6,000 to 10,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway sect, which, unlike the mainstream Mormon Church, practices plural marriages. Colorado City Unified District's administrators belong to the FLDS, but its students and teachers live in Centennial Park, a nearby community, whose residents are members of a different polygamist sect.