Ariz. poised to seek receivership for schools in polygamist town

AP in Arizona Republic/August 8, 2005
By Paul Davenport

Phoenix -- Arizona officials already have seized a truckload of records, computers and other material in a criminal investigation of the school district serving an isolated polygamist community in northwestern Arizona. Now, the state is preparing to take over the district itself.

A new Arizona law taking effect Friday will allow the state Board of Education to appoint a receiver to oversee administration of the Colorado City Unified School District, including financial and personnel matters that have drawn scrutiny from authorities.

The Arizona Legislature enacted the measure last spring at the urging of state Attorney General Terry Goddard and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne. That came after the district missed deadlines to file budget reports to the state and ran out of money, leaving teachers unpaid for several months last year. The paychecks resumed after an insurer began cover the district's IOUs.

"It was apparently grossly mismanaged," Horne said of the district. "They have misused money that was intended for the classroom."

Amid official action in Arizona and Utah on several fronts involving the polygamist sect that dominates Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah, Goddard's office is preparing a receivership petition to present to the state board.

Assistant Attorney General Susan Segal declined to predict when the petition will be filed, but Board of Education Executive Director Vince Yanez said the board, after giving the district time to prepare a response, could consider the petition as early as September.

It won't happen soon enough to satisfy Mike File, the elected Mohave County school superintendent and a former member of the state Board of Education.

There are indications the district's money has been misdirected, with district facilities and equipment used for personal gain, File said. "You would not believe the money these people take from children to spend on themselves."

File said there also are allegations that adults filled out AIMS test forms last spring.

"The state has not been able to substantiate that but certainly the scores indicate that something was skewed," File said. "The fact is that if John Q. Public went up there, you couldn't fathom the stuff that goes on."

Goddard and Horne have said their efforts have been hindered by the closed nature of the Colorado City community and, until now, a lack of authority under state law to take action against the district.

Along with the new receivership law, there are other developments involving the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect that espouses plural marriage.

Goddard's office sent investigators to Colorado City on May 24 to seize records and other material as part of an investigation into questionable district spending and disposal of property as well as possible misuse of district vehicles and equipment, including an airplane.

Separately, sect leader Warren Jeffs is among at least nine men charged in Arizona with various criminal charges related to so-called spiritual unions. And Utah authorities have moved to take temporary control of the church's trust, the United Effort Plan.

District Superintendent Alvin Barlow and school district governing board President Ralph Johnson did not immediately return calls to the district office, but Barlow told state senators during a February legislative hearing on the receivership bill that it was the wrong approach. "Let's start out with helping the district, helping the students," he said.

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 obeyed Jeffs' order to pull their children out of the public school system.

The district's enrollment is now 230, down from a peak of 1,200 in 2000, with a work force of 72, down from over 100 a year ago, File said.

While Barlow denied during the February legislative hearing that there was any "intent for malfeasance," a May 22 affidavit by an attorney general's investigator said there was reason to believe that Barlow and other district officials had misused public funds. No charges have been filed.

The receiver, who would report to the Board of Education, would investigate the district's finances and then recommend an improvement plan. The receiver would have broad powers to make changes. Those include overriding decisions by the district's board and superintendent. The receiver also could reassign or fire employees, reorganize the district, attend all meetings and cancel some contracts.

Mike Smith, a lobbyist for a statewide school administrators group that worked on the receivership legislation, said the receiver better be prepared for the long haul.

"It's going to take a couple of years to right that school district," he said.

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