- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2016

HILDALE, Utah (AP) - A school in a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona border that reopened two years ago is unveiling a new building for high school students as the rebirth of the public education system in the town sets more roots.

The Water Canyon High School is in a renovated storehouse in Hildale, Utah, next door to the elementary school that opened in 2013 after being closed for 13 years.

The school closed when enrollment dwindled to less than a dozen because sect members were following orders from leader Warren Jeffs not to send their children to school.

School principal Darin Thomas says it reopened with 150 kids from kindergarten through 12th grade. Next fall, Thomas expects 400 total between the elementary and high schools, The Spectrum newspaper in St. George reports (http://bit.ly/1T96pSz)

“This solidifies us. It means the people of Hildale know we’re a legitimate school,” Thomas said. “That’s the trust the people of Hildale are putting in us.”

The modern, renovated building also has a weight room, locker room and gym where a basketball team began competing last fall. The school is planning to form volleyball, wrestling and cross-country teams in the fall, Thomas said.

Some work remains. The music room has a piano but needs more instruments. The library shelves are bare, awaiting books that will be purchased in the future.

The Washington County School District spent $4.8 million to convert the building into a high school, according to district figures.

Just one senior graduated last year, but as many as six are expected to earn diplomas this year, he said. The rebirth of the school stands as one of Thomas’ top accomplishments in his career.

“I’ve seen this when it was nothing but an old warehouse. I’ve taken trash out of here myself,” Thomas said. “It’s been truly a blessing in my life to bring education back into a place that didn’t have an educational system for a decade or more.”

The growth of the school is the latest step forward for non-followers of the sect who are trying to carve out a foothold in a remote community where members of the polygamous sect still outnumber those who have let or been kicked out.

More than four years after Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides, a church trust taken over by the Utah more than a decade ago has seized 150 homes from sect members who refused to pay $100-a-month fees. Deeds to 50 of those homes have been given to people with ties to the community who paid several thousand dollars for the land, closing costs and any unpaid occupancy fees.

Eleven members of a sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are facing federal charges on accusations they orchestrated a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme. The defendants have pleaded not guilty. The sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago

The food-stamp crackdown marked the government’s latest move against the sect, coinciding with legal battles in two states over child labor and discrimination against nonbelievers.

A jury in Phoenix decided in March that the towns violated the constitutional rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic services such as police protection, building permits and water hookups. The Department of Justice has asked a judge to disband the town police department as punishment.

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