WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — The Utah State Charter School Board is following up on a FOX 13 investigation into a public school that has ties to a polygamous religious group.
The findings of a staff audit have left the board asking the same serious questions raised by our reporting since December.
Vanguard Academy in West Valley City continues to receive millions of dollars in public funds, despite the fact that its students and teachers almost exclusively belong to the same polygamous religious organization known as the Kingston group, or Davis County Cooperative Society.
Public schools are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of race or religion, thanks to the separation of church and state established in the United States Constitution.
Former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has referred to the Kingstons as "an organized-crime family," due to its members' roles in the Washakie Renewable Energy fraud case.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the Kingston Group a hate group since 2017.
FOX 13 was the first news organization to reveal the findings of extensive research into the spending and admission policies of Vanguard Academy.
According to an audit released by the Utah State Charter School Board, staff credit "multiple complaints and media inquiries" for its review of Vanguard Academy's procurement policies.
Data analyst Brooke Anderson was the first to notice a nearly 100% white student population at the public school.
Her concerns quickly shifted from matters of segregation to religious discrimination and potential fraud.
"There's a lot going on that needs to be investigated," Anderson acknowledged. "I'm hoping that we just stop paying them millions of dollars a year to run a whites-only charter school, for only the children of their own cult."
When Vanguard Academy applied for its charter in 2014, leaders promised a goal of 20% minority enrollment.— Adam Herbets (@AdamHerbets) December 11, 2020
The school has fallen 20% short of that goal.
Vanguard Academy's principal told me the school will prioritize siblings, not minorities, in upcoming admission lotteries. pic.twitter.com/dEqGelz6PF
Although the audit did not address Vanguard Academy's racial disparity, Utah State Charter School Board staff researched the school's spending habits.
It listed eleven findings that are "not resolved," due to responses from Vanguard Academy that were "not reasonable or adequate."
Among the findings, the audit confirms FOX 13's reporting, that Vanguard Academy paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kingston-affiliated businesses.
"Seven out of the twenty vendors tested... appear to have had prior personal relationships with Vanguard Academy because these business owners all share the same last name," the audit states. "A reasonable person would perceive that there was some form of favoritism or bias that influenced Vanguard Academy's objectivity in the selection of these vendors."
In an interview with FOX 13 last December, principal Suzanne Owen insisted the school's spending was above board.
"We do business with whoever has the business that will fulfill our needs," Owen said. "Whether they're affiliated with any kind of other religion isn't part of the process."
According to the audit, Vanguard Academy's gym's website states "you must be a member of the LDCC in order to use the gym facility... [Utah State Charter School Board] staff does not know what LDCC stands for."
LDCC stands for the Latter-day Church of Christ, the corporate name for the Kingston group's church.
FOX 13 asked Owen in December if she had heard of either the Latter-day Church of Christ or the Kingston group.
"Well, I've heard of them," Owen said.
"But you're not familiar with it?" asked FOX 13 investigative reporter Adam Herbets.
"No," Owen responded. "Well, like I say, this is a public charter school."
FOX 13 has since learned Owen's answer was less than honest.
Multiple past and present members of the Kingston family confirmed Owen is one of the "spiritual" wives to Hyrum Kingston.
"It's a well-known fact that Suzanne [Owen] is married to Hyrum Kingston, which is the leader's brother," said former member Amanda Rae. "It was so hard for me not to laugh [when I saw that]."
Last month, Vanguard Academy principal Suzanne Owen told me she had only "heard of" the Kingston group and the public school has "no ties to polygamy."— Adam Herbets (@AdamHerbets) January 15, 2021
Multiple past + present members of the group have since reached out to say she is in fact one of the wives to Hyrum Kingston pic.twitter.com/4yJY6zxnMi
"It told me that [Owen] is very willing to lie, and she's willing to lie on camera," said Anderson. "It should concern every member of the Charter School Board."
Vanguard Academy's schoolhouse is owned by Ensign Learning Center, a non-profit facing a separate IRS complaint.
Ensign Learning Center is also run by the Kingston family.
The audit lists several "possible resolutions" or "recommendations" pursuant to its findings, many of which Anderson believes are not stringent enough.
"The recommendations are asking [Vanguard Academy] to do their paperwork better, and that's not the problem," Anderson said. "The paperwork is not the root cause. The root cause is that we clearly have a school being run by a local cult, the Kingstons."
Anderson said she was very concerned that the Utah State Charter School Board might turn a "blind eye" to FOX 13's reporting, along with publicly available articles detailing the inner workings of the polygamous sect.
"Vanguard Academy should lose their charter. They should not be operating as a charter school. They should not be receiving taxpayer funding," she said. "With all of that public information, I would hope that would be taken into account, where the Charter School Board is not just putting blinders on."
Vanguard Academy staff will be given another opportunity to provide explanations at a public Utah State Charter School Board meeting on Thursday.
Executive Director Jennifer Lambert said the board will then have an option to take whatever action they deem appropriate.
"It's assumed that they do practice polygamy," Lambert said. "There is no law that requires a school to have representative demographics, however, they’re not allowed to pick and choose students based on race or religion... Any time we see lack of diversity, it causes us concern. The question is what legal tools do we have to respond to that?"
"For me, this will tell me if we can govern our charter schools in any reasonable way," Anderson said. "This [school] isn't for your private interests. This isn't for your private profit. This isn't for only your own children. This is a public resource... This is the worst-case scenario for a charter school that I can think of."
The full audit can be read online here.