WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — Representatives of the Utah State Charter School Board (SCSB) are reacting to a FOX 13 News investigation that revealed how a public charter school with ties to the polygamous Kingston group is defying state warnings by continuing to appoint Kingston family members to key leadership positions.
Vanguard Academy in West Valley City has been on warning status since June 2021.
The school has been facing questions related to its spending since December 2020, when FOX 13 News exposed the school’s payments of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to Kingston-affiliated businesses.
Public records show the school’s spending on these businesses did not stop in 2021 or 2022.
The state’s review of Vanguard Academy found all seven of the school’s board members had social or financial ties to the Kingston group, also known as Davis County Cooperative Society or “the Order.” The SCSB determined it is difficult for Vanguard Academy leaders to be impartial when voting on the school’s spending habits.
As such, the SCSB asked Vanguard Academy to appoint new school board members from outside of the Kingston group to avoid conflicts of interest in the spending of public funds.
In response, Vanguard Academy expanded its board from seven members to nine members. The school replaced just one of the original seven members. FOX 13 News found at least two of the three new board members have significant ties of the Kingston group.
Upon learning that the school was continuing to appoint Kingston family members, SCSB Chair DeLaina Tonks compared Vanguard Academy’s behavior to young children not wanting to take their medicine.
“When my kids were little and they had to take medicine, the hard way is I hold you down, and I give you the medicine,” Tonks said. “The easy way is you open your mouth, and I give you the medicine. Either way you have to take the medicine. You get to choose the way.”
“It seems to me, with the conflict-of-interest issue, sometimes it feels like you’re choosing the hard way. You’re bringing on more people who have additional conflicts,” Tonks continued. “The easy way would be adding board members who have no conflicts of your interest, and make sure that is the majority of your board. That’s my perspective.”
Nobody responded to Tonks’ comments.
Daniel Jessop, one of Vanguard Academy’s new board members, spoke briefly with FOX 13 News after the meeting.
“I’m not sure why they assume I’m conflicted,” Jessop said. “I don’t have a previous connection to Vanguard Academy, and so I think that was an assumption.”
“Don’t you have two sisters who are in the Kingston group?” asked FOX 13 News investigative reporter Adam Herbets.
“I have no comment,” Jessop said.
“Isn’t your sister (Kathleen Kingston) the assistant director?” Herbets asked.
Jessop walked away.
Past and present members of the Kingston group have confirmed Kathleen Kingston is also married to Vanguard Academy board member Scott Kingston.
“Of course that’s a conflict of interest. That’s his brother-in-law,” said Shanell DeRieux, who left the Kingston group more than 10 years ago. “I remember when (Kathleen) got married... my mom let me know (they are) from another polygamous group.”
DeRieux explained how the Kingston group teaches its members to take as much money as they can from the government, also known as “bleeding the beast.”
In April, the SCSB debated whether it should start removing and replacing Vanguard Academy board members. SCSB trustee Cynthia Phillips made a motion, recommending that Kent Johnson be removed from the Vanguard Academy board.
Johnson is a known member of the Kingston group. In addition to his responsibilities at Vanguard Academy, he also serves as an official spokesman for the Davis County Cooperative Society.
Ultimately, Phillips decided to withdraw her motion and asked for the school to be given “30 days in which to become compliant.”
“I hope that this sends a signal to the school,” Phillips said. “At least one board member who is willing to make a motion to remove (Johnson) if this isn’t taken seriously and corrected quickly, because it is not a hard thing to correct.”
In May, the SCSB did not make any sort of determination finding Vanguard Academy “compliant,” as the school remains on warning status. There was no discussion to remove any of the Vanguard Academy board members.
Instead, Phillips’ tone changed. While discussing Vanguard Academy’s bylaws, she repeatedly praised the school for its efforts.
“I’m personally very pleased,” Phillips said. “I’m really pleased by the efforts Vanguard has made to increase board members.”
After the meeting, Phillips declined the opportunity to clarify her comments.
“I don’t speak to the media. I don’t speak to the public,” Phillips said. “You can listen back to the recording of the meeting for clarification.”
The SCSB has not taken any meaningful action since placing the school on “warning status” approximately one year ago.
Due to scheduling hurdles, the SCSB is not expected to discuss Vanguard Academy in June or July.