Education Reclamation

A new state law wrests control of Colorado City schools away from polygamist zealots

Phoenix New Times/May 19, 2005
By John Dougherty

Much to my amazement and delight, Arizona has finally delivered a powerful blow to the fundamentalist Mormon polygamist theocracy that controls all aspects of public and private life in Colorado City.

On May 9, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano quietly signed into law a bill that will allow state education officials to take over the Colorado City Unified School District from religious leaders who control the school board and key administrative posts.

While Napolitano signed the bill into law, she did little to advance the legislation that almost died when state school superintendent Tom Horne backed a competing bill. But persistent lobbying by Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard and strong support from Republican Senators Toni Hellon and Linda Gray led to passage of the bill just days before the Legislature adjourned on May 13.

The law marks a historic transition in the state's half-century of complacency toward the nation's largest polygamist society based in this isolated community abutting the Utah border, a few miles south of Zion National Park.

For the first time in Colorado City's turbulent 70-year history, the school district will be operated outside the complete control of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a breakaway sect from the Salt Lake City-based Mormon Church.

"I think this is great," says Benjamin Bistline, a former FLDS member who is an authority on the history of the polygamous community. "It's something that should have happened 20 years ago."

Enactment of the law is also testament to the importance of another statute, the Arizona Public Records Law. I relied heavily on the public records law to pry loose thousands of pages of Colorado City school district financial records that revealed in stark detail a well-entrenched pattern of corruption.

The public records showed that the FLDS leaders abused the school district to provide unneeded jobs, new vehicles, credit cards, school supplies and other perks to help church members support their huge polygamous families.

My story "The Wages of Sin" (April 10, 2003) led to state school chief Tom Horne's July 2003 request for a special investigation of the school district by the Arizona auditor general. The investigation is ongoing.

While the school receivership law is an important first step in stopping the flow of public money subsidizing the closed polygamist community, much more must be done. Despite the fact that polygamy violates the state's Constitution, Arizona taxpayers are spending more than $15 million a year on health-care benefits for Colorado City families.

Polygamist families in Colorado City receive more than $1.5 million a year in food stamp assistance and another $500,000 annually in day-care subsidies. The Colorado City town government also receives millions of dollars in state and federal grants for everything from building roads and installing water treatment plants to expanding the town's municipal airport.

The FLDS abuse of power extends beyond the school district. Polygamists control all government bodies in Colorado City, including the police department. There has never been free political debate. The FLDS religious leader determines who will serve on public bodies. The FLDS also owns nearly all of the property in the community. Anyone who dares to offend the religious leader, Warren Jeffs, risks being evicted from their home and their wives and children assigned to another man.

With huge families to support and jobs scarce, the Colorado City school district has focused far more on providing jobs for adults than a decent education for children. Few girls ever graduate from high school, with many coerced into "spiritual" marriages with much older men.

The tiny, one-school district with 350 students has more than 100 employees -- nearly five times the number of employees of comparable school districts. The featherbedding has wrecked the Colorado City school district's $6 million annual budget. The district is more than $1.2 million in debt.

The FLDS uses the school district to discriminate against members of a rival polygamist sect living in nearby Centennial Park. FLDS religious leader Jeffs issued a July 2000 proclamation declaring the Centennial Park polygamists to be among the most evil people on Earth.

Jeffs ordered FLDS members to avoid all contact with the rival sect, even if that meant severing ties with family. FLDS faithful immediately withdrew 800 children from the public schools and all FLDS teachers resigned. The FLDS then set up private church schools in buildings that were once controlled by the public school district.

Nearly all the teachers and students remaining at the Colorado City public school are from Centennial Park.

Despite withdrawing their children from the school, FLDS members continue to control the school board, the school administration and, most important, the district budget.

In the past five years, the FLDS-dominated school board has kept teachers' salaries at the lowest level in the state -- the starting wage is $18,500. Only one teacher makes more than $40,000.

Meanwhile, the wages for FLDS members in non-teaching positions are frequently much higher. Several FLDS bus drivers and other support staff are making more than $30,000 a year. Top FLDS school administrators are paid more than $50,000 annually, according to district records.

Earlier this school year, teachers' paychecks began bouncing while FLDS school board members and administrators flew across the Southwest in a district-owned, $220,000 Cessna to attend conferences and workshops. No other school district in Arizona owns an airplane.

This stark dichotomy finally attracted the Legislature's attention.

Much of the credit for passage of the long-overdue law should go to Terry Goddard. The law, Goddard says, "provides an effective tool to take over school districts where public funds are being mismanaged."

In addition to the receivership bill, Goddard has worked closely with his Utah counterpart, Mark Shurtleff, to create a joint task force to investigate child abuse allegations that swirl around the community.

Mohave County is also putting pressure on the FLDS by dispatching a special investigator to the community to probe an assortment of alleged illegal activities. Last year, the state and Mohave County opened a joint government services center in Colorado City that includes space for law enforcement and social service agencies.

Governor Napolitano, meanwhile, has steadfastly avoided this issue since her 2002 election, despite the fact that education and the protection of children are central planks of her administration.

Napolitano said during a May 11 press conference that she was "pleased to sign the bill" and hopes that "it has a significant impact." But it was clear the Democratic governor wanted to move quickly to any topic other than Colorado City and polygamy.

It appears that Napolitano desperately wants to avoid getting into bedroom issues, especially with Republicans planning to put a gay marriage ban on the 2006 general election ballot in hopes of triggering a big turnout of "values" voters who will be inclined to pull the lever for anybody but the Democratic incumbent.

Arizona Republicans are hoping to follow the successful strategy used by President George W. Bush during the 2004 election where Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry in Ohio and several other battleground states where gay marriage propositions were on the ballot.

The school district legislation, which goes into effect on August 13, will allow the state Board of Education to appoint a receiver to take over day-to-day operations of any financially failing school district such as Colorado City.

Horne says he expects a receiver to be appointed in August or September to take over daily operations in Colorado City.

"It's clear to me they are dysfunctional," Horne tells me. "I think we have gathered the evidence to get a receiver in there."

While Horne says he's now delighted with the law, the Republican almost derailed the legislation in a heavy-handed attempt to expand his authority over public school districts statewide.

Horne backed a bill that would have given him the power to appoint a receiver to run any school district that the state Board of Education found to be "grossly dysfunctional." The bill supported by Goddard only allowed appointment of a receiver for financially failing districts.

Horne's power grab triggered a backlash from public education associations that were opposed to the state's gaining too much control over local school districts. By late April, legislation to address the serious problems in Colorado City appeared to be stalled.

But Horne finally agreed to limit the receivership bill to school districts in financial trouble, clearing the way for the bill to pass the Legislature. The Senate approved the measure by a 29-0 vote, and the House by 59-0.

The new receivership law is a step in the right direction, but it isn't enough. One major problem is that it will automatically expire in two years. The Legislature must allow the state more time to clean up the Colorado City school district. Another key issue that must be addressed is the political reality that FLDS members far outnumber other voters in the Colorado City school district boundary.

The state would be wise to consider merging the Colorado City school district with the public school district in Fredonia, about 30 miles to the east. This would reduce the chance that the FLDS will once again assume control over the Colorado City public school.

The state is likely to appoint Mohave County school superintendent Mike File to serve as receiver. File says he's willing to accept the position and eager to make fundamental changes to allow the district to operate in the best interest of the teachers and students rather than the FLDS.

"The first thing we are going to do is remove all the administrators and hire new people," File says.

File is well equipped to handle the situation in Colorado City. He has experience running a small school district and is intimately familiar with the issues facing the Colorado City school district. My only question is whether he is willing to spend long periods of time in Colorado City, which is more than a four-hour drive from his home in Kingman.

Colorado City school superintendent Alvin Barlow -- the state's longest tenured school superintendent with more than 30 years' experience -- did not return my call seeking comment.

Longtime Colorado City high school teacher Deloy Bateman says he, along with the rest of the teachers, is pleasantly surprised that the state plans to take over the school district.

"We are still in a state of shock," Bateman says. "I don't think we really understand what this means."

Bateman left the FLDS five years ago over a child custody dispute with his then-second wife. Since then, Bateman has been the only teacher willing to publicly criticize the school district's policies.

Teachers, Bateman says, remain petrified of offending FLDS school administrators and board members.

Years of religious indoctrination have made the teachers -- especially the women -- incapable of challenging the authority of men.

"They have never thought for themselves in their lives," Bateman says. "Even when you get into a situation like this, they still don't know what to think."

What most teachers want, Bateman says, is more pay.

Bateman has taught science at the high school for 24 years. Last year his base salary was $27,000. He supports a large family on this meager salary, and when I spoke to him Saturday he had been working on scavenging car parts to fix his family van.

Few teachers in the country have done as much for students in the face of such hostile working conditions. Bateman voluntarily teaches more than a dozen classes every day. He begins before dawn and teaches into the evening. He's created a state-of-the-art science laboratory at his own expense. He drives students across the Arizona Strip on geology excursions in his personal vehicle.

"I've been here for 24 years, and it's literally been 18 hours a day," he says.

Bateman says he's cautiously optimistic that the day he has dreamed about for years -- a day when the FLDS no longer controls the school district -- is about to become reality.

"It's about time," he says. "We are ready for a change for sure."

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