Gains cited for school district in polygamist enclave

Associated Pess/August 25, 2006
By Paul Davenport

Phoenix -- A northern Arizona school district serving an isolated community long dominated by a polygamist church "has a completely different look and feel" and hopes to emerge from under a state-appointed receiver's supervision within a year, the district's newly appointed governing board says.

Since the state Board of Education appointed a receiver to oversee the Colorado City Unified School District last December because of its financial woes, all district officials affiliated with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have resigned.

Authorities contend that the church's leadership used the school district as a cash cow, diverting money for questionable purposes such as purchase of an airplane.

Many FLDS members have left Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah, some for FLDS enclaves in Texas and British Columbia, and church leader Warren Jeffs is a federal fugitive.

The district's teachers went without pay for two months in 2004 after church leaders directed followers to withdraw their children from public schools. The district remained financially afloat largely because of financing providing by a school insurance trust, but the Arizona Legislature in June approved a $318,000 bailout for debt repayment.

More recently, a fiduciary appointed by a Utah court to oversee the church's financial trust has reported success in getting church members to pay past-due property taxes that are a funding source for the district.

The exodus of FLDS members from the school district's hierarchy since the receivership action has eliminated a schism between its administration and teaching staff, allowing "diverse ideas and opinions" to be aired during governing board meetings, the current board said in a letter to the state board.

"Today, eight months into the receivership, the district has a completely different look and feel. No longer are lines drawn" between the district board and administration on one hand and the teaching staff on the other, the board's letter stated.

The four-member district board said it hopes the state board will approve an improvement plan submitted by receiver Peter Davis and allow Davis to be released by the end of the current fiscal year.

In a separate report, Davis said the progress has enabled him to return operational control of the district to its new board and administrators.

Though Davis previously requested and received state authorization to override district officials' decisions, he said he has not had to use that power during the period covered by the quarterly report. Instead, he said, "a mutual agreement is reached between the governing board and the receiver before significant action is taken."

"The current governing board has the confidence of the receiver," Davis said.

Davis' report cited savings in administrative salaries, cell phone use and underused facilities, with the dollars saved helping to pay teacher pay raises and purchases of new computer and textbooks.

He also reported that an accounting firm found dozens of violations of financial reporting standards under the previous administration and that there were "indicators of possible violations of law" that would be reported to the state board.

Davis declined during a telephone interview to elaborate on the possible violations or to provide details on possible lawsuits to recover damages.

The FLDS split from mainstream Mormonism in 1890 and is not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Headquartered in Salt Lake City, the mainline Mormon church has disavowed polygamy.

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