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Crash Course

As the December 3 Colorado City Unified School District board of governors meeting draws to a close, Alvin Barlow, Arizona's longest tenured public school superintendent, instinctively opens his pocket calendar to set the date for the next meeting. Barlow flips through the calendar for a few seconds and fumbles with...
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As the December 3 Colorado City Unified School District board of governors meeting draws to a close, Alvin Barlow, Arizona's longest tenured public school superintendent, instinctively opens his pocket calendar to set the date for the next meeting.

Barlow flips through the calendar for a few seconds and fumbles with his pen.

Then he stops, and stares across the classroom inside the adobe building he helped construct 45 years ago -- a collective effort by fellow fundamentalist polygamist Mormons to improve education in this isolated community 60 miles north of the Grand Canyon.

Without making an entry, Barlow slowly closes the calendar.

There will be no more school board meetings for Alvin Barlow.

Late last month, Barlow signed a tentative agreement with the Arizona Attorney General's Office that strips him of his authority. He'll retire by the end of the year. More significant, the agreement calls for the state Board of Education to appoint a receiver to take over the financial affairs of the school district. The board of education formalized the agreement earlier this week.

The receiver will investigate how the school district plunged $2 million into debt. Barlow is already under criminal investigation by the AG for misusing public funds. A comprehensive review of the district's finances by the receiver increases the chance that criminal charges will be filed against him and other Colorado City school officials.

The possibility that Barlow will go to prison is real.

The reality that his 40-year public education career is about to end in disgrace is impossible for him to ignore, as he sits through his last board meeting. But he's obviously doing his best, following the fundamentalist Mormon creed to "Keep Sweet," no matter the adversity.

In a voice devoid of emotion, Barlow tells the two school board members in attendance and a third listening in on speaker phone that for the first time, he cannot set the date for the next board meeting. That duty, he says, must be performed by the receiver poised to seize control of the financially ruined school district.

The board accepts Barlow's recommendation without comment.

"I know of no other items," Barlow says, signaling the end of the meeting.

He carefully puts his calendar back into his suit pocket as the meeting adjourns.

Alvin Barlow, one of the most powerful men in Colorado City, walks silently out the door of his last school board meeting, down the hallway and into his office, ignoring a New Times reporter's questions along the way. There are no other journalists present to cover Barlow's last school board meeting.

Barlow's forced retirement and the appointment of a receiver to oversee the Colorado City school district marks a historic moment in the turbulent history of the closed polygamous society.

For more than 70 years, the adjoining towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, have been ruled by a theocracy controlled by the leadership of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a breakaway sect of the Salt Lake City-based Mormon Church ("Bound by Fear," March 13, 2003).

For decades, FLDS leaders have ignored numerous state laws and the Arizona Constitution, which forbids polygamy, in their relentless quest for plural wives. Hundreds of underage girls have been coerced into illegal cohabitations with older men who were already legally married.

The current FLDS leader is Warren Jeffs, a fugitive wanted on seven felony charges out of Mohave County in connection with the act of conducting "spiritual" marriages of underage girls to already legally married men. Jeffs exerts unquestioned authority over all aspects of life in Colorado City and Hildale, despite a nationwide manhunt to find him and a $10,000 reward posted by the Arizona AG for information leading to his arrest.

Those who dare to question Jeffs stand to lose their family, home, job and, most important, salvation.

An ongoing three-year New Times investigation of the polygamous community has uncovered evidence that all government functions in Colorado City and Hildale, including the town councils, the police department, the fire district, the municipal electric utility, municipal courts and the school board, are completely controlled by Jeffs.

All the members of the school board and school administrators, for example, are in those positions because they were ordered to work there by FLDS leaders.

"They wouldn't be here running the school if it wasn't for Warren's power," says Colorado City schoolteacher Deloy Bateman, who quit the FLDS four years ago over a child custody dispute. "Warren told them to be here, and that's why they are here, plain and simple."

For decades, the primary purpose of Colorado City and Hildale's governmental bodies has been to collect taxpayer funds and divert the money to FLDS-mandated activities. FLDS members brazenly describe the diversion of taxpayer funds to church-sanctioned projects as "bleeding the beast."

Over the past 50 years, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars have been collected by FLDS-controlled governments and funneled to church programs to help subsidize the high cost of raising huge polygamous families. It's not unusual for fundamentalist women to bear more than a dozen children and for men to have multiple wives.

But now, for the first time, the state of Arizona has struck back at the FLDS theocracy by forcing Alvin Barlow and the FLDS-controlled school board to relinquish financial control of the school district's $6 million annual budget.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard announced the proposed settlement agreement, called a consent decree, at a December 2 press conference in Phoenix.

"What we have," Goddard said, "is a very important step in terms of making sure that the law is going to be followed, the children are going to be served and that Colorado City joins the rest of the state as a law-abiding community."

Three days after Goddard's press conference, the Arizona Board of Education formally approved the consent decree and appointed Simon Consulting of Phoenix as the receiver to oversee the district's financial affairs.

Simon Consulting will immediately begin an investigation of the district's finances and will submit a plan to return the district to a sound financial footing to the state board within 120 days.

The tiny district operates one K-12 school with about 350 students. Despite its small size, the district has an unusually high number of employees and has made some extraordinary purchases, including a $220,000 Cessna P-210 airplane, acquired in 2002.

No other Arizona public school district owns an airplane.

The receiver will immediately begin to take steps to reduce district operating expenses, including attempting to sell the airplane.

The education board's 9-to-1 vote to approve the consent decree immediately relieved Alvin Barlow and Colorado City school district business manager Jeffrey Jessop of all administrative duties. Barlow will retire and Jessop will resign, effective December 31.

Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, hailed the board's action as a victory for Colorado City students and teachers who have suffered from the school district's financial mismanagement.

"I have been pushing for receivership for over a year now with this school district ever since I learned they bought an airplane with funds intended for students," Horne says.

Matt Wright, an attorney representing the Colorado City school district, says the consent decree allows the school district to continue providing educational services to children in the area.

For the past four months, the school district appeared determined to fight Goddard's effort to have the state education board appoint a receiver. But Barlow and Jessop, along with school board president Ralph M. Johnson, decided in late November to capitulate and sign the consent decree to avoid being called to testify before the state Board of Education.

Barlow and Jessop -- along with assistant business manager Oliver Barlow -- are under criminal investigation by the AG for misuse of school district funds, according to a search warrant served last May.

Wright says he expects the receiver will be able to quickly fix the financial problems at the district.

"I think the district will be out of its critical negative cash flow problem within a year," Wright says.

Goddard says the school district receivership is an important step in his effort to stop the FLDS from abusing public resources. Besides addressing problems with the school district, Goddard has also requested that the U.S. Justice Department conduct an investigation of the Colorado City police department for abusing its power by condoning spiritual marriages of underage girls to polygamist men.

Goddard says Justice Department officials are conducting a preliminary review of the Colorado City police.

"We need to keep making sure that the authorities there are subject to the same state laws everyone else is subject to," Goddard says. "They have to abide by the rule of law."

The Colorado City school district's slide into financial ruin began in July 2000, when FLDS leader Warren Jeffs ordered church faithful to withdraw their students from the public schools and enroll them in church schools or home schools. About 900 students were pulled from the school district overnight, and more than 20 teachers resigned. The district was left with fewer than 300 students.

Jeffs ordered the mass withdrawal of students because he didn't want FLDS members to associate with children and parents from a rival fundamentalist Mormon polygamous sect clustered in the nearby unincorporated community of Centennial Park.

Despite the withdrawal of students, Alvin Barlow and other school district administrators and board members -- whose children had been pulled from the public schools -- remained in their positions in order to keep control of the school district's budget, most of which was allocated to salaries and operating expenses.

The withdrawal of students didn't have an immediate negative impact on the school district's operating budget. In fact, the Colorado City school district was suddenly flush with cash because of a law that required the state to continue to fund the school district as if the 900 withdrawn students were still attending district schools.

Known as the "rapid decline" provision, the law allowed the Colorado City district to receive state aid for 1,200 students the first year after the mass withdrawal even though only 300 students were actually attending school. The number of students used to compute state aid declined by 15 percent a year. The net effect, according to state officials, was that the Colorado City school district received more than $5 million in extra state aid between 2000 and 2004 for phantom students.

But even this massive injection of extra state money was not enough to stave off financial ruin for the school district.

Thousands of pages of school board minutes and financial records reviewed by New Times in late 2002 and early 2003 uncovered a wide array of improper and illegal spending by the school district ("Wages of Sin," April 10, 2003), including:

• District employees and school board members used school district credit cards for personal expenses. The district credit card balance ballooned to more than $20,000 despite a state law that forbids school districts from incurring credit card interest.

• The district purchased expensive vehicles including a new Ford Excursion for Alvin Barlow and a $38,000 Ford F350 truck for Jeffrey Jessop. The district paid for oil, gas and maintenance of more than a dozen vehicles given to district employees to use for personal as well as district business.

• District employees traveled excessively, often taking family members along on trips that were paid for by district funds. The district purchased the Cessna airplane to facilitate travel and entered into a contract with the school board president's son to fly the plane.

• The district had more than 100 employees for 300 students, far more employees than any other school district its size. The unusually high number of employees was a way to transfer public school funds to FLDS members, who were then required to make significant contributions to the church.

• The district paid FLDS members hired to drive buses and work as custodians far more money than certified schoolteachers who were members of the despised Centennial Park polygamous sect.

• The district transferred three public school buildings to an FLDS-controlled entity at a loss to the district of more than $330,000. The former public school buildings were converted into FLDS schools.

Three months after the New Times April 2003 exposé, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Horne asked the state Auditor General to conduct a special audit of the Colorado City school district to review its finances. The state audit would drag on for more than two years, but its release late last month would prove to be a major blow to the school district.

Excessive spending by the Colorado City school district came to a head when teachers' paychecks started bouncing in October 2004. The district had maxed out a $1 million line of credit with Wells Fargo Bank and was issuing bad checks. Teachers were outraged, but continued to show up for work despite the lack of pay.

State education officials were powerless to intervene as the district plunged ever deeper into debt. There was no law allowing the state Department of Education to forcibly remove a corrupt and/or incompetent public school administration and school board from power -- even if they effectively bankrupt a school district.

"Nothing can be done until I get authority to do something," Horne said in November 2004. "I should already have that authority, but I don't."

Horne and Attorney General Goddard each introduced legislation in January 2005 to address the situation. After several months of contentious hearings, the Legislature passed a bill last April allowing the AG to petition the state education board to take over financially failing school districts. Governor Janet Napolitano signed the bill on May 9.

Ten days later, Mohave County school superintendent Mike File and two state legislators conducted a surprise visit to the Colorado City school district. File met with teachers and staff and warned that significant changes were about to take place at the school district, including the dismissal of unnecessary and corrupt employees.

The unscheduled visit infuriated Colorado City school officials.

"It was one of those things they didn't have any idea I was coming, and they were pissed," File says. "I just told it how it was."

News of File's tumultuous visit to Colorado City quickly got back to the AG's Office, which contacted File the next day.

File said Goddard's attorneys wanted to know if File thought Colorado City school officials would destroy public records to prevent a receiver from being appointed to run the district's finances.

"I said, 'They already are,'" File says he told the AG.

Four days later, on May 23, more than 20 police officers and AG investigators raided the Colorado City school district's office and filled a large moving van with boxes, computers and file cabinets. Search warrants indicated that Alvin Barlow, Jeffrey Jessop and assistant business manager Oliver Barlow were under criminal investigation for misuse of public funds.

The raid generated a huge treasure trove of documents for the AG, some of which were used to help prepare the AG's petition to place the school district into receivership. Goddard began legal action against the Colorado City school district on August 12, the day the new school receivership law took effect. The AG says he was prepared to present more than 20 witnesses and 175 exhibits at a hearing before the state Board of Education scheduled for December 8 and 9.

But that hearing was canceled after the consent decree was signed.

The three Colorado City school officials signed the consent decree on November 23, two days after the state Auditor General released the findings of a long-awaited audit requested in July 2003 by Horne.

The Auditor General's report was sharply critical of the school district's financial operations. The Auditor General noted that the private firm auditing the Colorado City school district's finances had "expressed substantial doubt about the District's ability to continue its operations."

The consent decree allows Alvin Barlow and Jessop to avoid appearing before the state Board of Education hearing and being asked to give sworn testimony on matters in which they are targets of a criminal investigation. The men indicated in pleadings that they would invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if called to testify.

The state gave up nothing in return for the district officials' signing the consent decree and is continuing its criminal investigation. "This agreement does nothing to foreclose the possibility of criminal charges in the future," Goddard said.

School district officials benefit from the consent decree at least in the short run by avoiding the public embarrassment of having to plead the Fifth Amendment before the education board. School district officials also are showing a willingness to cooperate with the state, which could help mitigate a sentence and/or fine if they are eventually charged and convicted of a crime.

Ironically, Oliver Barlow, one of the school officials under criminal investigation, will at least temporarily keep his school district job as business manager and serve as a liaison between the district and the receiver.

The state now faces a daunting public relations challenge as it prepares to salvage the school district's financial mess.

For years, Centennial Park polygamists blamed Jeffs for high property tax rates. Now, the state will likely become the target of bitter complaints as the school district receiver is forced to raise taxes to eliminate the district's $2 million debt over the next three years.

"The taxes will have to be raised substantially each year," says Mohave County school superintendent File.

Higher taxes will only further fuel deep suspicions spreading quickly among many Centennial Park polygamists that the school receivership is just the first step in a bigger plan by the state to eliminate polygamy.

"I think they are apprehensive that the people coming in will attack their religion," says Colorado City schoolteacher Bateman.

A year ago, Centennial Park families were clamoring for assistance from the media to bring attention to the school district's issuing bad paychecks. In recent months, however, Centennial Park polygamists have expressed strong support for Alvin Barlow and the school district, claiming that the media are distorting the district's financial problems.

Concerns about the state's launching a general attack against polygamy appear to be misplaced. There is no indication that law enforcement plans to break up existing polygamous families or arrest consenting adults who wish to engage in polygamy.

However, both Goddard and Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith have made it clear they will prosecute anyone who has recently taken an underage girl into a polygamous relationship.

"We will prosecute child abuse anywhere it occurs in the state," Goddard says.

Earlier this year, Mohave County filed felony charges against eight Colorado City men for engaging in unlawful sexual conduct with minors. The men all were given underage girls as polygamous wives by FLDS leaders. The cases are pending in Mohave County Superior Court.

But as long as fundamentalist polygamist Mormons refrain from spiritually marrying underage girls, it is very unlikely the state will prosecute consenting adults practicing polygamy -- especially since Arizona does not have a criminal statute forbidding polygamous unions.

Bateman says he expects fears about the school receivership to diminish in the near future if the receiver can demonstrate that teachers, students and parents will be better off with the FLDS no longer controlling the school district.

"I think in the long run everybody is going to be pretty happy about the change here," Bateman says. "Maybe they don't believe it now, but in the future I think they will."

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