Derail Polygamy's Money Train

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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.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty