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

Posted at 6:13 PM, Jan 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-14 23:37:42-05

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Charter School Board has confirmed it will investigate the spending and lack of diversity at a public charter school in West Valley City.

FOX 13 was the first to report Vanguard Academy, which has ties to the polygamous Kingston group, had only enrolled one non-white student in the past five years. Public records show the school has also spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on companies related to the Kingston family.

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

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Kingston group has been one of the only hate groups in Utah since 2017.

“All these college credits earned by Vanguard Academy students, how will they be put to use? To benefit the community or to further the ends of extremists?” asked Brooke Anderson, giving public comment at a board meeting on Thursday. “Charter schools are meant to open the door to innovation. It seems that the open door has also been used by extremists to create schools in their own image, for their own profit.”

Vanguard Academy’s schoolhouse is owned by Ensign Learning Center, a non-profit that is facing an IRS complaint.

Ensign Learning Center is also run by the Kingston family.

FOX 13 Investigates: Non-profit run by polygamous Kingston group faces tax questions and accusations

Suzanne Owen, the principal of Vanguard Academy, gave brief remarks to the Utah State Charter School Board, stating she was concerned with media bias.

"Vanguard has never, and will never, use discrimination or bias to describe enrollment or single out our students based on race, religion, family surname, or any other association," Owen said. "Everyone that has submitted an application for enrollment has been accepted."

In an interview with FOX 13 in December, Owen previously said she had only "heard of" the Kingston group.

"But you're not familiar with it?" FOX 13 investigative reporter Adam Herbets asked.

"No. Like I say, this is a public charter school," Owen responded.

Multiple past and present members of the family state Owen is one of the "spiritual" wives to Hyrum Kingston, the former principal of Ensign Learning Center.

"It’s a spiritual wedding, and it’s just as good in God’s eyes," said Amanda Rae, a former member of the group. "It was so hard for me not to laugh. It’s a well known fact that Suzanne is married to Hyrum Kingston, which is the leader’s brother... I think if Suzanne is going to lie about even being affiliated with the Kingstons then that just discredits everything else that she said.

Stewart Okobia, the financial compliance manager for the Utah State Charter School Board, stated Vanguard Academy has complied with the investigation by providing documents related to the school’s spending habits.

“We are in the process of doing a thorough review of the school’s procurement process and policies,” Okobia said. “When completed, we feel like we will be able to... see if anything was violated or against a law or any board rules.”

Okobia described Vanguard Academy as "very responsive" to the audit.

More than a month ago, FOX 13 also asked for documents related to Vanguard Academy's spending under Utah's public records law.

At the time of this story's publication, the school still had not supplied those records.

"We do business with whoever has the business that will fulfill our needs," Owen told FOX 13 in December. "Whether they’re affiliated with any kind of other religion isn’t part of the process."

Members of the Utah State Charter School Board did not comment on the investigation into the school’s spending, but they expressed the importance of diversity and inclusion in public schools.

“Why don’t we have a student body that more or less reflects that? Plus or minus a certain percent?” asked board member Cynthia Phillips.

“It’s important to us, and we hope it’s equally important to you,” said board chair Dr. DeLaina Tonks.

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