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State could take over Colorado City schools

Officials deny charges of financial mismanagement

ST. GEORGE — Colorado City School District officials are fighting charges of gross financial mismanagement filed by the Arizona attorney general before the state's board of education.

In a filed response to the state, Colorado City school district officials deny the allegations filed against them point by point and challenge the legality of the process.

Under a new law, Arizona HB 2417, the board of education is allowed to take over a school district and place it in receivership if the board finds evidence of financial mismanagement.

A petition alleging the district is insolvent and mismanaged is before the board, which is scheduled to meet today in Phoenix. Board members will discuss the qualifications of three potential receivers for the district, although no action will be taken. If the state takes over the school district, top administrators, including Superintendent Alvin Barlow, are likely to lose their jobs.

"The district, acting through its officers and employees, has engaged in a pattern and practice of systemic and egregious mismanagement of district property, materials, supplies, funds and facilities to the detriment of the students of the district," the state charges in its petition.

Students in the district, however, have shown to be proficient in testing mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

All three of Colorado City's public schools met the state's adequate yearly progress requirements for the 2003-04 school year and in 2002-03. Only 79 percent of Arizona schools received the passing grade this year, which requires a 95 percent student participation rate.

Arizona's AYP tests measure student performance in meeting state standards in math, English and writing. Schools that fail the AYP are identified for either school improvement plans or corrective action.

The state's petition also alleges district officials spend excessively and irresponsibly on administrative items including a "bloated work force," travel, cell phones, computer equipment, credit cards, vehicles and an airplane.

District officials defended the purchase of an airplane, citing their remote location and results of a cost analysis that indicated flying instead of driving would be more cost effective.

The petition charges the district with improperly selling or forfeiting district property, funds and facilities to benefit private schools operated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamist church that controls the community.

The district again denied the allegation and said unneeded supplies were sold at properly noticed bid sales.

"The district denies the conclusory allegations that it negligently or willfully disposed of property, funds and facilities," the district responded. "In accordance with law, the district doesn't ask or inquire into the religious preference or affiliation of its governing board members or its employees."

The Colorado City School District serves about 400 children from polygamous families living in towns along the Utah/Arizona border about 35 miles east of St. George. Most residents in Hildale, Washington County, and Colorado City, Ariz., belong to the FLDS church, which preaches polygamy as a central tenet. A splinter group of plural families lives in nearby Centennial Park and Cane Beds, Ariz.

Barlow testified earlier before a legislative panel that the district's financial troubles began in 2000 when FLDS members pulled their children from public schools. That move dropped about 850 students from the public school system, prompting the district to negotiate with its creditors, shut down schools and cut staff, he said.

Earlier this year the district's financial troubles deepened when it was unable to meet payroll. Employees were given warrants to hold instead of paychecks, although they were eventually paid from a state insurance trust fund.

According to the state's petition, the Colorado City School District is still $1.4 million in the red and unable to meet its obligations.

District officials dispute that claim, however, and say a scheduled plan for liquidating its debts is in place.