Double Exposure

Arizona's finally followed Utah's lead and launched serious action to stop abuses by polygamists

School Superintendent Alvin Barlow and his top aides had just finished an emergency meeting with Mohave County School Superintendent Mike File and were preparing to fly back to Colorado City.

Though critics have questioned how one of the poorest school districts in Arizona can justify buying a plane, the Cessna 210 had come in handy on this day.

Barlow and his supporting cast had been forced to fly 140 miles to the county seat after File had notified them that he was withholding paychecks for the district's 100 employees because of school officials' malfeasance.

The one-school district with 350 students had run out of money five months into the academic year. Plus, it had exhausted a $1 million line of credit with Wells Fargo Bank. It appeared that if the district were to make its payroll, it would have to borrow $178,000 from Mohave County.

File wanted some answers. He had had enough of the district's wanton spending -- on everything from the Cessna to a fleet of expensive SUVs commandeered by administrators for personal use to unnecessary out-of-town travel by district employees to thousands of dollars' worth of personal purchases by Barlow and other employees on district credit cards.

File told Barlow he wouldn't release county funds to the district until it came up with a plan to reduce expenses.

During a heated meeting that included an assistant Mohave County attorney, Barlow agreed to come up with a plan that must be approved by county and state education officials, and File agreed to cut loose the payroll checks.

"They are in real bad shape financially," File told New Times later.

Whatever plan Barlow and the Colorado City school board come up with, File thinks drastic changes must be made.

In a letter to Attorney General Goddard, File asked if he has the legal authority to remove school board members.

"This board does not represent the people, or children of the district," he wrote, "and in my professional opinion [members are] acting in total disregard of the Arizona Constitution."

For years, the school district has been the largest single employer in Colorado City. Superintendent Barlow, a member of the FLDS and a polygamist, employs 100 workers at the district's 350-student kindergarten-through-12th-grade school. The 3.5-students-to-one-employee ratio is much lower than the 26-students-per-employee ratio of other Mohave County schools.

The inordinately high number of employees has put considerable strain on the district's $5.2 million annual budget. But, from the FLDS' perspective, the district provides scores of desperately needed jobs to church faithful, who work primarily as administrators, principals, janitors and bus drivers.

In a bizarre twist, the district employees loyal to the FLDS, including Superintendent Barlow, don't even allow their own children to attend the public school. Along with other church loyalists, they removed their kids from the school in July 2000, after the order by Jeffs.

Almost all of the students left attending the public school are from a small fundamentalist Mormon community in next-door Centennial Park, Arizona, that split with the FLDS in the mid-1980s.

At the same time Jeffs ordered FLDS members to pull their children from the public school, he directed FLDS followers to have no contact with the people from the Second Ward, whom he labeled "apostates."

So even if district finances were squarely in the black, it would be bad enough that Barlow and his crew are paid with public funds to tend to a school whose students they believe are evil traitors, and whom they are not allowed to converse with.

But the district's books have been in shambles for a long time. New Times uncovered gross misspending of public funds last spring during a review of district expenditures ("The Wages of Sin," April 10). The paper's examination and subsequent story triggered a joint investigation of the district by the state Auditor General and Attorney General's offices.

Arizona's investigation, which initially focused on the December 2002 purchase of the aircraft, was expanded in September to include the district's relationship with businesses controlled by the FLDS.

Of particular interest to the state has been the district's termination of prepaid leases on three school buildings owned by the church-controlled Colorado City Improvement Association. By walking away from the leases, the district benefited the FLDS by leaving more than $330,000 in bond funds in church coffers.

Barlow and the school board justified ending the leases early after the Arizona School Facilities Board agreed to contribute $6 million toward a new $7.5 million school building in town. The superintendent and board members ignored pleas from non-FLDS teachers that the leased buildings -- especially since they had been paid for in advance -- be retained to guard against overcrowding.

Instead, the structures were almost immediately converted into FLDS schools, where the district employees loyal to the FLDS now send their kids.

Earlier this month, New Times reviewed district records requested under the Arizona Public Records Law and found that the Colorado City Unified School District is now acknowledging that its new school is already overcrowded and will ask the state to build a second public school in town.

Superintendent Barlow declined to discuss anything pertaining to the school district with New Times --particularly why he and the board gave back school buildings to the FLDS at a substantial loss to taxpayers that the community now desperately needs.

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