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Polygamist Crackdown Targets Public School


The Arizona attorney general plans to file a petition today seeking a state takeover of a financially failing public school district which is run by members of a polygamist religion. The takeover attempt is unprecedented. It was prompted by allegations that school district officials drained their budget to benefit themselves and their church. NPR's Howard Berkes has details.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

This situation is so unusual, it prompted a new state law which takes effect today. Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard is wasting no time in applying it to the school district in Colorado City, Arizona.

Mr. TERRY GODDARD (Arizona Attorney General): It's unable to meet its obligations. It's unable to pay its teachers. They're now in debt to the extent of about $1.4 million, and we believe by the beginning of the next school year it'll be $1.8 million.

BERKES: These aren't typical budget problems in a typical school district. Goddard says the administrators, the non-teaching staff and the school board are all believed to be members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the FLDS Church. Polygamy is key in church doctrine. Most of Colorado City's 4,000 people are church members, and they dominate local government, police and schools.

Mr. GODDARD: They're very extravagant in the way they spend public money. And then I guess the bottom line is that the indirect beneficiary of this extravagance is the FLDS Church.

BERKES: Here's how, according to Goddard's petition: jobs for church members that seem unnecessary. Colorado City has the same number of students as another district down the road, but it has close to four times the administrative staff. It has twice the per-student administrative cost. It has a $200,000 airplane. It gives senior staff SUVs. It put a satellite TV system in one administrator's home, and it puts school buildings and supplies in the hands of the FLDS Church.

Mike File is a county school official who has monitored the district's spending.

Mr. MIKE FILE (County School Official): You know, they really know how to work the system, and they refer to it as `bleeding the beast.' And those people look at us as the beast, and they will bleed that beast, and that refers to taking any money that's earmarked for the good of the public and putting it towards their beliefs and their profit.

BERKES: This `bleeding the beast' philosophy is also described by former church members. It doesn't hurt FLDS children and teachers, because they left the public schools five years ago for church schools. Enrollment plummeted 75 percent. But the FLDS administrators, support staff and school board remained. The Colorado City school superintendent didn't respond to NPR's request for comment, and their district business manager says he won't respond. But here's lawyer Matthew Wright, the school district's newly appointed attorney.

Mr. MATTHEW WRIGHT (Attorney for School District): I would just caution people to understand that they're only hearing one side of the story, that there are many facts that will be revealed which I believe will establish that the actions of the administrators or the district itself was not as sinister as the complaint would lead one to believe. And certainly there will be plausible explanations in response to some of the allegations that have been made.

BERKES: Arizona's state Board of Education will decide whether to seize control of the school district and assign an independent administrator.

FLDS polygamists are targets on other fronts. Nine have been indicted for child sexual abuse, including FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs. A Utah court has seized control of a church trust valued at more than a hundred million dollars. And there's an ongoing criminal probe of the Colorado City school district.

Howard Berkes, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.