Ariz. may end takeover of polygamist area district

Ariz. may end takeover of polygamist area district

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PHOENIX (AP) -- A school district serving a remote area of northern Arizona and southern Utah long dominated by a polygamist sect is poised to emerge from a state takeover implemented nearly four years ago because it finances were in disarray.

The Arizona Board of Education on Monday is scheduled to consider its appointed receiver's finding that the Colorado City Unified School District is in good shape and should be returned to local control.

The school district serves a cross-border area dominated by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The area includes the polygamist-dominated neighboring communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, as well as Cane Beds, Ariz., a nearby community dominated by non-polygamists.

Arizona's takeover was part of a multipronged crackdown that also led to a Utah court appointing a trustee to oversee finances of the United Effort Plan Trust that holds most of the homes and property in the area. Meanwhile, church president Warren Jeffs has been convicted in Utah and is awaiting trial in Arizona's Mohave County in criminal cases involving marriages of underage followers.

Before the Arizona Board of Education placed the district in receivership, the state Attorney General's Office in May 2005 served a search warrant on the school district, hauling away a truckload of records, computers and other material. An affidavit filed to obtain the warrant said there was reason to believe officials had misused public funds.

Attorney general's spokeswoman Anne Hilby said Friday she was unable to determine the status of the investigation.

The state Auditor General's Office last month pronounced the district financially solvent, a finding that was needed under state law for the Board of Education to lift the receivership it ordered in December 2005 under a new state law enacted by the Legislature for that purpose.

Also, the district's accountants have given the district a clean bill of health. It is "operating in a fiscally sound manner" with capable local leadership, receivers Peter S. Davis and Robert O. Bacon said in a recent report to the board.

That's a far cry from conditions cited in 2005 by state officials when Arizona took control of the district.

The district had purchased a $200,000 airplane and transferred its bus barn to the town of Colorado City without apparent benefit to the district. Administrators had charged excessive travel costs for themselves and family members to district credit cards, the district was spending thousands of dollars a month on cell phone plans and it hadn't reduced its bloated staff even though enrollment plummeted when the sect had its followers pull their children out of the public schools.

Owing money to the state and having exhausted its bank credit, the district ran out of money to pay its employees at one point in late 2003. The district had another cash crunch in late 2004.

After being appointed in December 2005, the receivers cleaned house, accepting resignations from dozens of employees and implementing new controls on accounting, purchases and other activities. Two education experts from Utah State University were brought in to review school programs and make recommendations on improving.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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