Schools already face financial allegations
Already facing questions about how they spent state money, officials in charge of public schools in the nation’s largest polygamous community want to raise an additional $1.5 million through a special bond election this fall.
The governing board of the Colorado City Unified School District passed a resolution three weeks ago authorizing the Nov. 2 special bond election.
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The measure would give wide spending discretion to the school board, which already is being audited by the state for questionable financial policies, including the purchase of a $220,000 airplane.
“Any district that wants to go ahead with a bond election should at least be in fiscally good standing with the State Department of Education and the auditor general,” said Mike File, superintendent of Mohave County schools and a longtime critic of the Colorado City school district.
“These guys certainly are not anywhere close to being in good fiscal standing.”
Like everything in the twin communities of Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah, the school board is controlled by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The towns are on the Arizona-Utah line.
Officials in three states and Canada have said they are investigating the FLDS and its senior officials for a series of allegations ranging from questionable finances and relatively minor building code violations to sexual misconduct.
Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the FLDS, was accused in a lawsuit filed July 29 in Salt Lake City of repeatedly sodomizing his 5-year-old nephew decades ago and covering up serial sexual molestations by two of his brothers for years. He denied the allegations.
On the financial front, the Arizona Auditor General’s Office confirmed last week that Colorado City Unified School District failed to file required paperwork on its spending for fiscal 2003.
A spokeswoman for the Auditor General’s Office said the State Board of Education was notified Friday of the failure and would take “appropriate action.”
Traditionally, education officials withhold 10 percent of a district’s annual funding until the proper accounting is completed.
Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, said he wished he could do more in cases where school officials are suspected of misusing and misreporting public funds.
“It does no good to withhold 10 percent if the people running the school district aren’t concerned with the kids, but are using the money for themselves,” Horne said.
The Colorado City school district has come under criticism for using state funds to purchase the airplane and for hiring 104 employees to run a system with 289 students.
Horne last year requested an audit of the Colorado City school district that has yet to be completed.
The board of education will decide in September whether to withhold part of Colorado City’s budget for failing to meet its 2003 financial reporting deadlines.
Alvin Barlow, superintendent of Colorado City schools, was unavailable for comment.
The bond issue is expected to pass because all but about a half-dozen families in Colorado City are members of the FLDS, a breakaway polygamous sect that teaches that women are property and that men must have at least three wives to reach the Celestial Kingdom.
Jeffs has the loyalty from his estimated 10,000 followers, most of whom live in Colorado City and Hildale.
FLDS members technically will pay higher property taxes if they approve the bond issue. However, those taxes are kept artificially low because virtually all property in Colorado City and Hildale is owned by a “religious and charitable trust” with Jeffs, his brother Leroy and 94-year-old Fred Jessop as the primary trustees.
The FLDS trust, known as the United Effort Plan, receives a partial exemption on property taxes and only requires FLDS faithful to pay a portion of the reduced rate.
Property taxes are kept even lower because most of the sprawling dormitory-style homes in Colorado City never are completed. By remaining under construction, the homes never can be taxed at full value.
State records show the UEP pays about $800,000 a year in property taxes to Mohave County. Roughly half of that goes to the school district, which has to rely on federal and state funding for the rest of its $4 million-plus operating budget.
Despite controlling the school board, FLDS officials refuse to allow their children to attend Colorado City’s public schools. Jeffs ordered his faithful to pull their children out of public schools in July 2000.
The exodus allowed Jeffs to have a greater say in the day-to-day teaching of FLDS students, who rarely receive as much as an eighth-grade education through home schooling or the sect’s few new private schools.
It also qualified the church-run school district for more than $4.3 million in emergency state funds under the so-called “rapid-decline” program. That program was set up to save school districts from disaster in cases where enrollment fell sharply because of such things the unexpected loss of a major employer or the relocation of a military base.