By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The Arizona Legislature has the rare opportunity this session to strike a powerful blow to the heart of the fundamentalist Mormon polygamist cult that has dominated life in the isolated communities north of the Grand Canyon for more than 70 years.
Lawmakers are debating legislation that would allow the state to finally seize control of the corrupt Colorado City Unified School District from the nation's largest band of polygamists who claim to be following the teachings of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith.
It's essential that the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano reach agreement on such legislation during this session. There is too much at stake to let this opportunity slip away.
Napolitano needs to get off her throne and get down and dirty with legislators to make sure this bill passes. Her cowardly and aloof practice of not commenting on bills until they pass the Legislature is an abdication of the power that voters have given her -- which is to lead, not follow.
The governor is intimately familiar with the crisis gripping the Colorado City schools. As state attorney general, she initiated a grand jury investigation into abuses by the polygamists that went nowhere. In the last two years as governor, Napolitano has failed time and again to take direct action to help end the sexual slavery and taxpayer rip-offs that are Colorado City's hallmark.
Legislation that can begin the tedious process of reform is in danger of dying because of political infighting. Napolitano should use her bully pulpit to make sure this doesn't happen.
The tiny, one-school district has been systematically plundered by a cadre of religious fanatics to the point that teachers' paychecks are routinely bouncing and students and teachers fear the area's new $7 million K-12 public school will close.
The fate of the Colorado City school district has profound implications for all of us.
What's at stake is a fundamental question of governance.
Will lawmakers and the governor uphold the state's constitutional ban against polygamy and pass a law that will allow removal of the polygamists who control the school board and school administration?
Or will the Legislature continue to ignore the fact that Arizona taxpayers are shelling out more than $20 million a year to underwrite the expansion of a powerful theocracy that is based on coercing underage girls into polygamous cohabitations?
In other words, will the state uphold the law of the land, or will it succumb to what the polygamists believe is God's law?
Seizing control of the Colorado City school district provides the state with its single best opportunity to begin to dismantle the unconstitutional theocracy that now controls all social, political, economic and spiritual life in the twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah.
To understand the importance of the school district issue, it is first necessary to understand the basic principles of the religion that dominates life in these communities.
Nearly all of the approximately 10,000 inhabitants of these two dusty towns nestled beneath the starkly beautiful Vermillion Cliffs are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The FLDS believes it is following the mandates first set down 175 years ago by Mormon patriarch Joseph Smith. In fact, the FLDS believes it is the true Mormon Church, and that the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), with more than 10 million members, is a fraud.
A central tenet of FLDS theology is polygamy, a practice first promoted and strongly encouraged by Joseph Smith and his successor, Brigham Young. (The LDS church officially abandoned polygamy in 1890.)
As incredible as this may seem to the uninitiated, the FLDS faithful believe a man must have at least three wives to ascend to the highest levels of the "celestial kingdom" in the afterlife, where he and his harem will rule for eternity over a multitude of planets that will be populated by their progeny.
FLDS women go along with this arrangement because they believe their eternal salvation depends on being married to a man worthy of reaching the celestial kingdom. (They also have little schooling, which I will discuss below, and almost no contact with the outside world.)
But a man can't simply find three willing females to agree to such an arrangement. The polygamous unions can only be performed by the FLDS prophet. Over the last 70 years, thousands of young women and underage girls have been sealed into polygamous unions by various FLDS prophets.
The FLDS prophet is considered by adherents to be God's only true spokesman on Earth. Strict obedience to the prophet is essential to remaining in good standing in the church. Thus, if a man wants to obtain the coveted three wives, he'd better do exactly what the prophet wants.
The prophet's power extends to the economic realm as well.
Nearly all the land in Colorado City and Hildale is owned by a trust called the United Effort Plan, which is under the complete control of the prophet.
The prophet doles out parcels of land to men considered worthy of the "priesthood." These men then pay for and construct homes for their rapidly expanding families. But the men never take title to the homes. The men can be evicted from their houses and forced to leave the community at the whim of the prophet.
Not only that, but any man's wife and children can be reassigned by the prophet to another man. The new "husband" frequently "marries" the daughters of his new "wives." (State law neither recognizes underage marriages without parental consent nor multiple marriages, so legally such men and their so-called spiritual spouses have not entered into wedlock.)
The church urges those involved in polygamous unions to produce as many children as possible. It's not unusual for women to have had a dozen children by the time they reach their early 40s.
This obviously creates tremendous economic pressure on the family patriarchs, who must provide for scores and scores of children.
This is where the state and federal governments come in handy.
The FLDS has created sham public entities whose primary purpose is to obtain state and federal funds to help finance the rapidly growing polygamist society.
The prophet determines who will be on the Colorado Town Council and the Colorado City school board. The town goes through the motions of holding elections, but the outcome is always fixed.
There has never been a contested election for a seat on the Colorado Town Council. I know. I have reviewed every election since the town was incorporated in 1985.
The Colorado City school board is also dominated by FLDS men who were ordered to become members of the board decades ago by religious leaders. School board President F. Lee Bistline has served since the 1960s. District Superintendent Alvin Barlow has held his post for more than 30 years.
The fundamentalist prophet keeps strict control over the Colorado City school board for one reason: money.
The school board is the community's most important counterfeit political entity because it receives more than $6 million a year in state and federal funds.
In the last two years, I have examined thousands of pages of school board minutes and financial records that reveal a massive and systematic scheme to divert taxpayer funds from public school assets to FLDS coffers.
The school board and its top administrators have transferred valuable public school assets -- including school buildings, buses, communication equipment, underground high-speed Internet connections, district credit cards, numerous sport utility vehicles (including gas and repair bills) and classroom supplies -- to FLDS private schools and for the private benefit of FLDS church members.
It is an astounding rip-off that would never occur in a normal school district where voters could replace corrupt and incompetent school board members at the ballot box. But FLDS members are not going to vote against anyone endorsed by their prophet. Anyone who goes against the prophet suffers dire consequences.
There's an intriguing and disturbing subtext to why the school board is systematically looting the school district to the point that it is more than $1.2 million in debt and payroll checks are bouncing left and right.
It is about church-inspired hatred. What has resulted from this hatred fuels a powerful argument for why the Legislature must act as soon as possible to seize control of the Colorado City school district.
Despite the firm grip of the FLDS on thousands of followers, it is not the only fundamentalist Mormon polygamist sect in the Colorado City area.
Twenty years ago, a group split from the dominant religion over leadership issues. Known as the Second Ward, the other polygamist sect set up operations a few miles southeast of Colorado City in the unincorporated community of Centennial Park.
As is often the case in the netherworld of fundamentalist Mormonism where violence, murder and hatred lurk in the shadows, the two sects despise each other.
The FLDS considers members of the Second Ward beneath contempt -- worse even than blacks, whom FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs has said in sermons are the devil's manifestation on Earth.
It is this irrational, religious-based hatred between the FLDS and the Second Ward that's propelling the Colorado City school district toward bankruptcy.
The hostilities began in earnest in July 2000, when Warren Jeffs ordered FLDS church members to sever all ties with all members of the Second Ward, and that included even relatives.
FLDS faithful immediately withdrew about 600 students from the school, and all FLDS teachers quit their posts and were reassigned other, non-teaching jobs.
The only teachers and students who stayed at the public school were members of the Second Ward and a few non-polygamists.
Despite the fact that FLDS children no longer attended the public schools, the FLDS did not relinquish control of the school board -- or of the millions of dollars it receives each year.
And since FLDS membership greatly outnumbers the population of the Second Ward, there has been no way to change the makeup of the school board at the ballot box.
In the ensuing five years, the FLDS school board, FLDS administrators and FLDS support staff have assiduously avoided any contact with the teachers and students they are supposed to be helping.
At the same time, the FLDS school board began to transfer hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of public school assets to FLDS private schools.
The school district also hired dozens of unnecessary FLDS members to work as bus drivers, secretaries, janitors, groundskeepers and office personnel -- typically at much higher wages than the average $18,500-a-year starting salary of a Second Ward teacher.
The school board's featherbedding has reached absurd proportions.
The district has more than 100 employees for 350 students, a ratio far out of line with the typical one employee to 25 students in most Arizona school districts.
The school board's profligate spending -- including the purchase of a $220,000 airplane flown by the school board president's son -- finally exhausted the school district's $1 million operating line of credit with Wells Fargo Bank.
The bank canceled the credit line last fall, triggering a financial meltdown that led to the district's repeatedly issuing bogus payroll checks to teachers.
Second Ward teachers, parents and students are so angry over the degenerating situation at the school that they took the unprecedented step of inviting me to meet them in Colorado City recently so they could publicize the outrages that have come their way.
Like FLDS members, the Second Ward polygamists are extremely wary of the media because they don't want to bring unnecessary attention to their lifestyle.
I accepted their invitation, and after a round of introductions followed by my pledge not to reveal their names, the teachers began to unload their frustrations of working at a school where administrators hate them and their paychecks are no good.
"We are hanging on because of the children," one female teacher said. "But we just can't keep doing this if we don't get paid."
A male teacher said he and his colleagues are on the verge of walking out.
"Either I'm going to get paid or I'm going to be working somewhere else," he said.
Teachers have been so distracted in recent weeks that they have sometimes not shown up for class.
A senior high school female told me she blames the FLDS-dominated school board for the crisis.
"The school board should be there to help the teachers, not cause all these problems," she said.
Students are very worried the school could close and they will not graduate.
It's rare when a girl graduates from the Colorado City high school -- many quit attending after 10th grade to assume roles as polygamous wives. Children soon follow, and they never resume their education.
"I just want to hurry and graduate before the school shuts down and completely fails," she said.
The students, teachers and parents truly believe their school is on the brink of closing. They are desperately seeking help, but they don't know what to do.
This is an intolerable situation that transcends the practice of polygamy.
There is a sizable segment in the polygamist community that truly wants to educate their children. They deserve the opportunity to go to a public school that is not tainted by religious dogma.
It's obvious that the FLDS-controlled school board is purposefully inflicting as much financial damage to the school district as possible. After all, it's the hated Second Ward teachers and students who rely on the school while FLDS children are home-schooled or attend FLDS religious schools.
Also, the FLDS puts very little value on education, believing that an ignorant public is a subservient public. It is especially beneficial to the church to keep women uneducated because it makes it extremely difficult for them to leave and survive in the outside world.
The fate of the Colorado City school district is now in the hands of the Arizona Legislature and subject to the ravages of politics.
The House last month passed a bill sponsored by Republican Representative Mark Anderson that would allow the state Board of Education to appoint a receiver to oversee operations of any "grossly dysfunctional" school district.
The bill, however, is attracting stiff opposition from lobbyists representing school board associations and school administrators who say the legislation transfers too much authority from local school boards to the state.
"This bill goes too far . . . and we very strongly oppose it," Janice Palmer, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said during a March 30 hearing before the Senate K-12 Education Committee.
Palmer says her association supported an earlier draft of the bill that would have required a superior court to appoint a receiver to oversee school districts with substantial financial problems -- which would have included Colorado City.
But that language was broadened during the House debate to allow the state Board of Education to appoint a receiver to operate any "grossly dysfunctional" district. This was state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne's idea.
Horne, a Republican, says the House bill would give the state the authority to appoint a receiver to oversee the operations of any school district that the state Board of Education determines to be operating improperly.
"My bill figures that today it could be financial problems, and tomorrow it might be something else. So it deals with any illegality at a school district," Horne tells me.
Horne says opposition to his bill is coming from Democrats and the powerful education lobby -- both of which, he claims, "are soft on Colorado City."
"We are talking about a grossly dysfunctional situation [in Colorado City], and you would have thought the Democrats would want to see that corrected," Horne says.
But Democrats claim Horne is trying to expand his power at the Department of Education by taking advantage of the Colorado City school crisis.
If the Legislature passes Anderson's bill with the current language, the governor will probably veto it, one prominent Democratic lobbyist tells me.
"She certainly would have the pretext because every school board in the state will have a reason for her to veto this bill," he says. "It would allow Tom Horne to come into virtually any school district in the state and take over the school."
As I was preparing this article, there appeared to be a glimmer of hope that a compromise could be reached that would allow passage of a bill acceptable to the governor.
Representative Anderson told members of the Senate K-12 Committee he would be willing to narrow the House bill to focus on only financially failing school districts. Anderson's offer appeared to ease lobbyists' concerns, and the Senate K-12 committee passed the House bill by a 4-3 vote.
The full Senate is expected to take up the bill as this article goes to press.
It is imperative that Horne back off his power grab and that the Legislature passes a bill that will allow the state to finally seize control of the Colorado City school district.
"We have to do something, there is no doubt about it," says Republican Senator Toni Hellon, chairwoman of the Senate K-12 Committee. "We need to solve this before this session ends."
A school receivership law would mark a historic moment in the state's long and rocky history with the Colorado City polygamists.
It would for the first time in 70 years give the children of this isolated community dominated by a cruel theocracy the opportunity to receive a decent education.
This would have immense repercussions. It could mean the difference between a college degree and independence and a life as a polygamous wife shackled to raising dozens of children.
A receivership law would also send a powerful signal to FLDS leadership that the state of Arizona will no longer allow a religious dictator to reign over a community in violation of the state's constitutional prohibition against polygamy.
It's the crucial first step toward putting the law ahead of what the polygamists believe is the rule of God.