Education Reclamation

Much to my amazement and delight, Arizona has finally delivered a powerful blow to the fundamentalist Mormon polygamist theocracy that controls all aspects of public and private life in Colorado City.

On May 9, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano quietly signed into law a bill that will allow state education officials to take over the Colorado City Unified School District from religious leaders who control the school board and key administrative posts.

While Napolitano signed the bill into law, she did little to advance the legislation that almost died when state school superintendent Tom Horne backed a competing bill. But persistent lobbying by Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard and strong support from Republican Senators Toni Hellon and Linda Gray led to passage of the bill just days before the Legislature adjourned on May 13.

The law marks a historic transition in the state's half-century of complacency toward the nation's largest polygamist society based in this isolated community abutting the Utah border, a few miles south of Zion National Park.

For the first time in Colorado City's turbulent 70-year history, the school district will be operated outside the complete control of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a breakaway sect from the Salt Lake City-based Mormon Church.

"I think this is great," says Benjamin Bistline, a former FLDS member who is an authority on the history of the polygamous community. "It's something that should have happened 20 years ago."

Enactment of the law is also testament to the importance of another statute, the Arizona Public Records Law. I relied heavily on the public records law to pry loose thousands of pages of Colorado City school district financial records that revealed in stark detail a well-entrenched pattern of corruption.

The public records showed that the FLDS leaders abused the school district to provide unneeded jobs, new vehicles, credit cards, school supplies and other perks to help church members support their huge polygamous families.

My story "The Wages of Sin" (April 10, 2003) led to state school chief Tom Horne's July 2003 request for a special investigation of the school district by the Arizona auditor general. The investigation is ongoing.

While the school receivership law is an important first step in stopping the flow of public money subsidizing the closed polygamist community, much more must be done. Despite the fact that polygamy violates the state's Constitution, Arizona taxpayers are spending more than $15 million a year on health-care benefits for Colorado City families.

Polygamist families in Colorado City receive more than $1.5 million a year in food stamp assistance and another $500,000 annually in day-care subsidies. The Colorado City town government also receives millions of dollars in state and federal grants for everything from building roads and installing water treatment plants to expanding the town's municipal airport.

The FLDS abuse of power extends beyond the school district. Polygamists control all government bodies in Colorado City, including the police department. There has never been free political debate. The FLDS religious leader determines who will serve on public bodies. The FLDS also owns nearly all of the property in the community. Anyone who dares to offend the religious leader, Warren Jeffs, risks being evicted from their home and their wives and children assigned to another man.

With huge families to support and jobs scarce, the Colorado City school district has focused far more on providing jobs for adults than a decent education for children. Few girls ever graduate from high school, with many coerced into "spiritual" marriages with much older men.

The tiny, one-school district with 350 students has more than 100 employees -- nearly five times the number of employees of comparable school districts. The featherbedding has wrecked the Colorado City school district's $6 million annual budget. The district is more than $1.2 million in debt.

The FLDS uses the school district to discriminate against members of a rival polygamist sect living in nearby Centennial Park. FLDS religious leader Jeffs issued a July 2000 proclamation declaring the Centennial Park polygamists to be among the most evil people on Earth.

Jeffs ordered FLDS members to avoid all contact with the rival sect, even if that meant severing ties with family. FLDS faithful immediately withdrew 800 children from the public schools and all FLDS teachers resigned. The FLDS then set up private church schools in buildings that were once controlled by the public school district.

Nearly all the teachers and students remaining at the Colorado City public school are from Centennial Park.

Despite withdrawing their children from the school, FLDS members continue to control the school board, the school administration and, most important, the district budget.

In the past five years, the FLDS-dominated school board has kept teachers' salaries at the lowest level in the state -- the starting wage is $18,500. Only one teacher makes more than $40,000.