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Polygamists' pullout hurts Hildale school

ST. GEORGE— Phelps Elementary School in Hildale, its enrollment reduced by a polygamist sect's withdrawal from public schools, may have to close, Washington County School District officials say.

Phelps suffered a devastating blow when Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs asked followers to withdraw their children from public schools last August.

Enrollment plunged from 240 in the 1999-2000 school year to 74 at the start of the 2000-01 year.

Rex Wilkey, assistant superintendent of elementary education, met with Phelps parents last week.

"They asked us not to close down," said Wilkey. "We explained the financial reality."

District business administrator Bill Sampson said the school would need at least 200 students to balance the budget,

However, one way the school could be kept open would involve an exchange with Hildale's twin polygamist community of Colorado City, Ariz.

Colorado City School District officials would have to agree to pay tuition for students from Arizona to attend Phelps Elementary.

The Washington County School District would then agree to pay tuition to the Arizona schools when Utah students leave Phelps and go to the junior high and high school on the Arizona side.

The weighted pupil unit in Arizona is higher than in Utah. Washington County Schools could only afford to pay the Utah amount, not the Arizona amount.

Parents will present the exchange plan to the Colorado City School District on Saturday.

"This is one last look to see what could happen," said Wilkey.

Unless an exchange agreement can be reached, Phelps will close, Sampson said, and the district would then try to sell the building.