A public school system run by the nation’s largest polygamous sect in a remote area near the Arizona-Utah line could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funds for failing to properly report how it spends its money, officials said Wednesday.
The possible sanction is the latest in a string of political, legal and administrative pressures being brought to bear in three states and Canada against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and its self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Jeffs.
Maude Haggerty, accounting services director for the Arizona Auditor General’s Office, confirmed Wednesday that the Colorado City Unified School District failed to meet the second of two deadlines to properly report spending for fiscal 2003.
The district, which is controlled by the FLDS, could lose up to 10 percent of its annual state funding for failing to comply, Haggerty said.
Any major cutback could be significant because Jeffs has a history of using public jobs to promote loyalty in the twin communities of Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, where most of the sect’s 10,000 faithful live.
Colorado City’s school district is a prime example.
It has 104 employees and 289 students. All but a few of the employees are FLDS faithful. None of the students is a follower of the church.
The nearly 3-1 ratio of students to workers in the Colorado City school system is in contrast to other Arizona districts, where the ratio is typically anywhere from a 10-1 to 25-1.
“It’s absurd,” said Mike File, Mohave County schools superintendent, who has been critical of Colorado City’s operations for years. “It’s about time someone did something about this.”
The possible loss of funding is at least six weeks away.
Haggerty said her office would notify the Arizona Department of Education that the district failed to comply with guidelines and that officials there would determine what action to take at their board meeting in late September.
If Colorado City officials were to file the required paperwork before then, the Arizona Board of Education likely would release its full funding. However, the Auditor General’s Office has had a broader investigation of the school district under way for 13 months.
That audit was requested by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne. The Auditor General’s Office could not say Wednesday when the investigation might be complete.
Problems pile up
The possible crackdown comes as Jeffs and the FLDS are facing problems on several other fronts.
Earlier this week, a private detective from southern Utah served legal papers on one of Jeffs’ top aides at a ranch in remote western Texas, where the sect is building a massive complex on a 1,691-acre ranch.
The private detective, Sam Brower, said he planned to go to Jeffs’ walled compound in Hildale today to try to serve the sect leader personally with a summons to appear in court on a lawsuit filed three weeks ago.
That suit accuses Jeffs, 48, of repeatedly sodomizing his then-5-year-old nephew decades ago and covering up for years of serial child molestations by other sect leaders. An attorney for the sect has denied the allegations but refuses to say where Jeffs is.
Officials in Arizona, Utah and Canada have said for months that they are investigating a wide range of allegations against Jeffs and the sect, which teaches that women are property and that men must have at least three wives to reach the celestial kingdom.
Former FLDS members have told investigators that the sect promotes sexual abuse, domestic violence, racial hatred and loathing for any form of government. They say that underage women sometimes are married off to men in their 70s and 80s and that young men often are driven out of the community to ensure Jeffs and his most devoted elders a better pick of teen brides.
None of several investigations so far has led to any criminal charges against Jeffs or his key aides.
The move by the Auditor General’s Office to enforce the financial reporting guidelines on Colorado City’s school district could threaten Jeffs’ power base if it leads to a serious cutback in state funding.
Haggerty said Colorado City school officials originally failed to meet a March 31 deadline to file reports and questionnaires for fiscal 2003.
The Auditor General’s Office then sent a letter to the district May 19 advising that unless the reports were submitted within 90 days, the Arizona Board of Education would be asked to take “appropriate action.”
Traditionally, “appropriate action” in such cases has been to withhold 10 percent of a school district’s aid until the paperwork is filed.
“(Tuesday) was the 90th day,” Haggerty said Wednesday. “Within one to two weeks, we will send a letter to the State Board of Education letting them know the district is in non-compliance.”
The Arizona Republic attempted to contact Alvin Barlow, superintendent of Colorado City schools, without success. An assistant in his office said Barlow was conducting teacher workshops and was unavailable.
Records show the Colorado City Unified District had total expenditures of $4.7 million during fiscal 2003. But how much aid the state sent the district was unclear.
‘Rapid decline’ funds
A spokesman for Horne failed to return phone calls. But officials earlier acknowledged that Colorado City received more than $4.3 million in so-called emergency “rapid decline” funds from the state since 2000.
The rapid-decline program is designed to help school districts, usually in smaller rural areas, where military redeployments or the loss of a prominent industry or factory spurs dramatic population shifts and a sharp drop in student enrollment.
In Colorado City’s case, the rapid decline began in July 2000 after Jeffs ordered all FLDS followers to withdraw their children from the schools. The move left just 289 students, all members of a rival polygamous sect from a separate community just outside Colorado City.
Even though they withdrew their children, Jeffs’ followers maintained control of the School Board, with power to hire and fire all employees.
Records obtained from the Auditor General’s Web site show the school district spent only 40 percent of its funds on classroom expenditures. Sixty percent went to administration, plant operations, transportation and other non-classroom expenses.
In the state’s other 225 school districts, the percentages were almost exactly opposite. Fifty-nine percent went to classroom expenditures, 41 percent to non-classroom expenses.
“This is just an absolute travesty,” File said. “What’s going on up there would not go on anywhere else in this state.”
Besides its headquarters in Colorado City/Hildale and the new compound in Texas, the FLDS also has a branch of followers just across the U.S. border in Canada. The attorney general of British Columbia announced last month that he was organizing a task force to look into allegations of sexual exploitation, child abuse and forced marriages in that community.
Allegations of misuse of public funds also have been raised in Canada.