Schools: Local Control, But Little Local Money

Salt Lake Tribune/June 28, 1998
By Tom Zoellner

In the unique environment of Colorado City and Hildale -- the only towns in the United States where virtually all land is owned by a polygamous church -- state and federal subsidies are used liberally.

The church-controlled border towns make nearly all critical decisions on how their 1,300 youngsters are taught, but townspeople themselves contribute little to the cost of educating their children.

Colorado City School District's elementary, junior and senior high schools are heavily subsidized by Arizona taxpayers. Local taxpayers contribute just 12 percent of the total budget -- far below the average of 42.7 percent that other local school systems receive from taxpayers in their areas.

This is due to two factors: church ownership of land and the low assessed value of the town's real property.

The state of Arizona disburses educational money based on a formula that includes a district's assessed property-tax values. In other words: the poorer the town, the more education money it gets from Phoenix.

On paper, Colorado City looks quite poor. The Mohave County Assessor last year set the net value of the town at $6.5 million. By contrast, another northern Arizona town of similar population, Williams, was assessed at $19.1 million.

Coloroado City Residents Pay Little for Education

Children in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., receive some of the largest taxpayer subsidies in their respective states. In Colorado City, 87 percent of the school district's budget comes from outside sources. Last year, local residents paid $538 to each student while state, federal and county taxpayers contributed $3,925.

Source: Utah and Arizona Departments of Education

County assessors on both sides of the Utah-Arizona border have a difficult time determining exactly what the community is worth because large tracts of church-owned land have not been sold since the 1940s. And the sale price of a house or lot is one of the most common benchmarks for determining its ``fair market value'' for tax purposes.

``It's hard to say what fair market value is out there because there is no good market out there,'' said Arthur Partridge, the chief deputy assessor of Washington County, Utah.

``We have made an effort to raise the property value in that area,'' said Mohave County, Ariz., Assessor Bev Payne, whose staff must drive five hours and go through Las Vegas to get to Colorado City. ``There's a great deal of church-owned property there, but it is not exempt. We're attempting to deal with the lack of a market. They've got no commercial property there.''

She added that Colorado City leaders have encouraged her office to do a thorough job of assessing the town's real property. That effort, she said, helped boost the town's net value to $6.5 million, up from $4.8 million the previous year.

Arizona and Utah mandate the core curriculum for their public schools, but residents in Colorado City choose their own superintendent, who makes hiring decisions for each school. By contrast, Hildale's single school, Phelps, is one of 26 schools under the umbrella of Washington County District, with headquarters in St. George.

Don Timpson, director of the public North Mohave Community College in Colorado City, says church leaders have immense influence and control over the schools.

``There are only two institutions here that are truly independent of the church,'' he says. ``Phelps School and the college.''

North Mohave is independent because it is under the supervision of outside educators in Kingman, Ariz., he said. The college fell out with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after administrators declined to lease its building from the church's United Effort Plan Trust. The church allows only a few select students to attend the public college, directing most of its members to its own unaccredited John Y. Barlow University or elsewhere.

``We're not interested in the Mohave college,'' says Colorado City Councilwoman Karen Barlow. ``Our children can go to Hurricane [Utah] if they need a class. That school has nothing to do with us. They do their thing and we do ours.''

Hildale's Low-Income Programs Are Far Above Average

Hildale, Utah, has one public elementary school. (Older students cross the Arizona border to attend junior and senior high school in Colorado City.) The Hildale school, one of 14 elementary schools in Washington County District, draws the most Title I money, per capita, because of its large number of low-income students.

Source: Utah and Arizona Departments of Education

Timpson, a polygamist, said he offered to hold classes in the local high school to attract students. ``The courses could have been taught by their own teachers, as long as they were certified,'' he said. ``We were told no.''

Colorado City High School, like the town that encircles it, is a blend of the modern and the antiquated.

There is a roomful of new computers, but some of the desks were bought secondhand from a motel/conference center for $3 each. The building, once an elementary school, is partially constructed of adobe blocks stacked by volunteers in 1963.

Superintendent Alvin Barlow -- brother to Mayor Dan Barlow -- is proud of the gains the district has made since its unification in 1986. Before that, almost none of the children in Colorado City went to high school.

Outside taxpayers can be thanked for that, on both sides of the border.

In Hildale, for instance, 74 percent of the more than 300 students at Phelps School are low-income, netting the school an extra $80,000 per year in federal Title 1 money. The next poorest school in Washington County is St. George's Dixie Downs Elementary, where 55 percent of the students are low-income.

Hildale students enroll in the Colorado City District when they graduate from the eighth grade. Utah, in turn, pays that district about $1,791 for each pupil (under the state's weighted pupil formula) for a total of about $90,000 for Utah students attending school on the Arizona side of the border.

Tribune writer Dawn House contributed to this story.

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