FLDS-run school is cleared

Arizona ends probe; locals are set to regain control of Colorado City district

The Salt Lake Tribune/March 16, 2008

Nearly three years after Arizona took over a school district in a polygamous community and alleged its administrators had misused public funds, the state has closed its investigation without bringing any charges.

The Colorado City Unified School District has a new administration, new programs and has even renamed its lone school El Capitan, now named for a local peak instead of the beleaguered community of Colorado City, home of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The district has plenty to brag about: It was awarded a bronze medal in a U.S. News & World Report evaluation of Arizona schools; its Future Business Leaders of America team consistently outperforms much larger schools' and its fledgling girls' and boys' basketball teams finished the season with winning records.

More important, the new team of administrators is close to getting out from under state oversight.

"I think they are there," said Peter S. Davis, the receiver who has overseen the district since its takeover.

"Everybody wants to see them out of receivership."

'A common purpose'

In August 2005, Arizona authorities alleged criminal misconduct and used a newly adopted law to place the school in receivership. The district's financial difficulties had caused it to bounce teachers' paychecks, cut staff and drop salaries.

The Arizona Attorney General's Office attributed the problems to mismanagement and misuse of public funds. School administrators - all FLDS members - blamed inadequate tax revenue, costly building projects and declining enrollment for the shortfalls.

In 2000, FLDS members had pulled their children from the public school and placed them in private or home schools. The school's population dropped from 1,000 to about 400.

Eighteen FLDS members who filled the administrative and teaching ranks resigned from the district by January 2006.

The criminal allegations merely allowed the state to subpoena the district's records and take it over, according to a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, and no investigation or charges are pending against former administrators.

The district has been working steadily since then to bring a new administrative staff up to speed and to repay the state for overexpenditures and a tax advance. It still owes $229,426, but expects to pay that off by the end of the school year.

"We have gone forward with a common purpose," said Jared Hammon, president of the district's governing board. "That purpose has been to work with the receiver, recognize the situation we were in and to come together and resolve it. That attitude has been successful."

Making sacrifices

Arizona currently has four schools in receivership, and Davis said that Colorado City Unified School District is in far better shape than the others.

An audit last summer found numerous shortcomings, ranging from how student attendance is recorded to a lack of competitive bidding for supplies. Most of the deficiencies already have been corrected, said Davis, who has assumed a monitoring role rather than active management of the district.

The preschool through 12th grade school currently has about 368 students and 21 certified teachers, according to the state auditor's office.

Children who attend the school come from Centennial Park, Colorado City and Cane Beds. Their families may have a history of polygamy, may have left polygamy or the FLDS sect, or may have no connection to either, which Davis said in a recent report makes for a student mix with a "pronounced" cultural variance.

"You have that diverse space, where what students can wear to the senior prom become questions that pit values of one group against another," he said.

Hammon said that righting the district's finances has "come at a price."

"We need buses, school supplies. We've just tried to make do until we reached that goal," he said. "Everybody has had to sacrifice."

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