Non-profit readies plans for Marlboro campus

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MARLBORO — Even though the purchase and sale agreement for the Marlboro College campus hasn't been finalized, the founder of the non-profit organization that hopes to set up shop there said he is ready to hit the ground running in September.

"We hope to have our first class of 100 students if things go well," said Seth Andrew, founder of founder of Democracy Builders, a non-profit educational organization aimed at building civic engagement.

During the Marlboro Select Board's Wednesday evening meeting, Andrew said the model for the Degrees of Freedom program proposed for the campus is "built for the COVID era."

The students will come from Washington, D.C., in a dedicated car of the Amtrak Vermonter and be transported directly to the college where they will be secluded for the two weeks of their program there.

"Originally we had 300 student committed but we scaled that back to have single dorm rooms for every student," said Andrew. "We'll have 200,000-square-feet of facilities for 100 students."

The future of the campus in Marlboro has been of much concern for many people since the Marlboro College Board of Trustees announced a planned merger with Emerson College in Boston. That merger, which will create the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson, is expected to be finalized within a few days. Many of the current Marlboro students will finish their studies in Boston with most of the faculty that has been teaching in southern Vermont. Those faculty members were offered positions at the new institute.

But Emerson did not want the real estate that came with the deal and folks in the region expressed concern that the campus might be subdivided for homes or sit empty. Since November, said Andrew, he has been talking with the Campus Working Group, which was tasked with finding ways to utilize the campus after Marlboro moves to Boston. The deal for the 500-acre campus won't be finalized until the merger with Emerson is complete.

Andrew also noted he has been in talks with the board of Marlboro Elementary School about allowing the town to use three buildings on campus, also starting in September, for $1 in rent. If the school board and the town decide they want to remain on campus, town voters would have to decide on whether to purchase the three buildings or lease them.

It might cost upwards of $3 million to repair the current school on Route 9 if the town decides to remain there.

"I think I speak for the board when I say that we are all excited by the prospect of being able to use a part of the Marlboro College campus for our elementary education, and that we certainly appreciate the offer of a $1-a-year lease," said Dan MacArthur, chairman of the Marlboro School Board. "There are many details to be worked out but the first meeting was a good one."

If all goes well, said Andrew, he would like to see the programs on campus expanded to allow tuitioning high school students to attend school there. He said they can do it for $9,000 a year, which is $8,000 less than the state allows currently for Marlboro students.

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Adrian Segar said he was concerned about the public information, or the lack of it, available to people doing their due diligence about the organization's finances. He questioned whether Democracy Builders had the finances to make the purchase, never mind the $1 million a year needed to maintain the 52 buildings on the campus.

"Where is all this money coming from?" asked Segar.

Segar pointed out that the IRS revoked Democracy Builders non-profit status in 2016 and didn't file 990s for at least three years.

Andrew blamed the discrepancy on the many name changes and iterations Democracy Builders has gone through since its founding in 2005.

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He also noted when he worked to clear up the confusion, the IRS retroactively reinstated the non-profit status of Democracy Builders.

"It is very confusing," he said. "I know, because I had to live through it."

Andrew noted that the Campus Working Group, established to review proposals for the campus, has had confidential access to all of his financial documents. He also noted that Democracy Builders relies on philanthropy, public funds such as Pell grants, and tuition for its funding.

Andrew also noted that Democracy Builders' model has changed since its founding.

"A lot of the things we did in 2006 we are doing differently now," said Andrew. "We innovate all the time. We make mistakes in practices, policies, pedagogy and our approach. We listen to faculty and staff and change them. It's not a bug; it's a feature."

Democracy Prep Public Schools, a national network of charter schools based in Harlem, has 1,000 employees and a $250 million a year budget, said Andrew.

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In 2013, he left the organization to work in the technology and innovation office of President Barack Obama. In 2017 he left to build schools, mainly in Liberia. Now he has returned to build Degrees of Freedom and hopefully, Freedom College, in Marlboro.

"The history of democracy at Marlboro is in its bones," he said. "What they tried to do with Marlboro College, we are trying to do a modern version. We hope to honor the past and build the future."

Degrees of Freedom will host 11th and 12th grade students in Marlboro for three two-week sessions over the school year. Students will also take online courses. The whole process is intended for the participants to earn college credits while still in high school

Marlboro Music will have exclusive rights to the campus during its 10-week summer program. Marlboro Music is currently building a residence hall and a music hall on campus. If the deal goes through, Democracy Builders will own and lease those back to the music festival, he said.

If they area able to offer classes in September, Andrew said they will need between 20 and 40 full-time staffers to support the two-week sessions. He is currently taking applications from current Marlboro College faculty and staffers.

In a written submission to the Reformer, T. Hunter Wilson, who taught at Marlboro College for 47 years, warned that news about the sale of the campus "has been accompanied by a further blizzard of public relations puffery and whistling in the dark, accompanied once again by the absence of genuine openness about what is going on."

"The trustees and administration of the college continue to misrepresent both the history of their stewardship and their present actions, asserting once again that they have had no other choice and that their present actions assure a continuation of Marlboro College history and values," wrote Wison. "If the Board and administration had put half as much effort into working with the wider community to save the college as they have put into working with a consultant to close it, the results would be very different."

Select Board Chairman Jessie Kreitzer said he and Andrew plan to hold a public forum in July, date yet to be determined, to answer more questions about the proposed use of the campus.

Andrew has relocated to Marlboro with his three children and wife, CBS News producer and correspondent Lana Zak.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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