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FOX 13 Investigates: Public school with ties to polygamous sect promises change to avoid further discipline

Posted at 10:13 PM, Mar 03, 2022

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — For nearly a year and a half, Vanguard Academy in West Valley City has been responding to concerns about its ties to the polygamous Kingston group, also known as the Davis County Cooperative Society, or “the Order.”

The questions started with a FOX 13 investigation in December 2020 which revealed a lack of diversity and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars spent on Kingston-affiliated businesses.

FOX 13 Investigates: Public school with ties to polygamous sect is 100% white

The Utah State Charter School Board conducted its own investigation, confirming FOX 13’s findings. They placed Vanguard Academy on “warning status” in June 2021.

“I mean, it really doesn’t take much of an investigation” said Kollene Snow, a former member of the Kingston family. “Everybody looks the same. Everybody’s got the same last name.”

As of March 2022, Vanguard Academy employees said they were still struggling to meet the Utah State Charter School Board’s mandates.

Read: Public school with ties to polygamous sect under investigation by Charter School Board

“I am not saying we have evidence of fraud or evidence of financial misspending,” said executive director Jennifer Lambert. “We just cannot confirm that there is adequate oversight... we cannot assure that things are being done appropriately.”

Despite findings that the school is 100 percent white and that its students nearly all belong to the same polygamous family, the Utah State Charter School Board said Vanguard Academy has likely met the board's minimum requirements to avoid "actively creating barriers” to public entry.

“The fact that this probably is a school that serves this very certain community probably in and of itself doesn’t draw others to be interested in applying for this school,” Lambert said. “We’ve been dancing around the issue. We’re talking about.a cooperative, the Davis County Cooperative Society.”

"We’ve looked up the vendors," Lambert added. "The vendors that we’re talking about, we can’t find them contracting with any other charter school."

Lambert said it has been difficult for the Utah State Charter School Board to ascertain who is related to whom within the Kingston group.

Director Suzanne Owen previously denied knowledge or involvement with the Kingston family's religion, formally known as the Latter-day Church of Christ (LDCC).

“Are you familiar with the Latter-day Church of Christ,” asked FOX 13 investigative reporter Adam Herbets.

“I’ve heard of them,” Owen responded.

“But you’re not familiar with it?” Herbets asked.

“No,” Owen said. “Well, like I say, this is a public charter school."

Multiple past and present members of the group confirmed Owen is one of the “spiritual” wives to Hyrum Kingston, the “brother of the prophet.”

Vanguard Academy announced it has hired a new director and will not be renewing Owen’s contract at the conclusion of this school year.

The school also stated it has added two additional board members from outside the Kingston group as part of its effort to avoid further discipline from the Utah State Charter School Board.

When board chair DeLaina Tonks asked for the names of the three employees, Vanguard Academy representatives did not answer the question.

“We wish that you had been open with us prior to the meeting and let us know who these board members are,” Tonks said.

The school also declined to release the names of the new employees to FOX 13 News, despite Vanguard Academy staff spending nearly an hour during the meeting touting its commitment to transparency.

“We are working with the Utah SCSB to record those positions,” said Vanguard Academy board member Kent Johnson. “(We have been advised) to not make any comments to the media at this point.”

Some members of the Utah State Charter School Board said they felt the addition of two non-Kingston board members would help Vanguard Academy avoid spending concerns in the future.

Others expressed concern that it would not fix the problem, especially if the original seven Vanguard Academy board members are required to recuse themselves from votes involving government spending.

“How can the rest of the board make any decisions without a quorum?” Lambert asked.

Vanguard Academy remains on “warning status.”

FOX 13 News discovered in October 2021 that the school is looking into the possibility of expanding. According to Utah State Charter School Board policy, it is impossible for a school to be considered for expansion unless it is in "good standing."

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