MARLBORO — Degrees of Freedom, which hoped to welcome hundreds of students to Marlboro starting this fall, is delaying its opening.
“We are taking a step back,” said Chandell Stone, CEO and co-founder of Degrees of Freedom. “We’re getting the lay of the land, seeing what needs to be done to make sure this project is viable. We hope to right this ship and we are hoping that people can give us the time and space to do that.”
Co-founder Seth Andrew was arrested Tuesday morning and cited with wire fraud, money laundering and providing false information to a financial institution.
According to a news release from the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Southern New York, Andrew allegedly stole $218,005 from Democracy Prep, the charter school network that he founded in 2005, and put the funds in his own bank account. According to the release, Andrew used the bank account with the stolen funds to acquire a reduced-interest loan on a $2 million apartment in New York City.
Andrew left Democracy Prep in 2013 to take a job with the United States Department of Education and also served as a senior adviser in the Office of Educational Technology at the White House. But even though he resigned his job as superintendent of schools, he didn’t officially sever his ties with the charter school network until 2017. Until that time, he was being paid both by Democracy Prep and the Department of Education under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act Agreement, which allows individuals to work in government service while receiving pay and benefits from another employer.
In June 2020, Democracy Builders, which was founded in 2015, bought the campus for $225,000 in cash and the assumption of $1.5 million debt the college owed to the Marlboro Music Festival. According to the Marlboro grand list for 2020, the college and its assets were assessed at just under $5 million.
Following the sale of the campus, Marlboro College closed and merged with Emerson College in Boston and Democracy Builders established Degrees of Freedom on the campus, launching “a new model of higher education, where high school students can earn college credit, and high school/GED graduates can get the boost they need to access, competitive colleges and well-paid careers.”
Degrees of Freedom was aimed at students in Democracy Prep programs, and many of the people setting up the program in Marlboro were at one time affiliated with Democracy Prep, but there is no official connection between the two organizations.
Stone said Andrew’s arrest and removal from the board of Democracy Builders and as its CEO has left those working on campus to pick up the pieces and figure out a way forward.
“The reality is, Democracy Builders is the owner of the campus,” said Stone. “Degrees of Freedom is a tenant. We need to take a step back and understand what our relationship is going to be with the campus.”
The partnerships and relationships that Andrew developed as owner of the campus will need to be examined and, if necessary, redefined and she said it’s unfair to ask students to come to the campus while this re-examination is going on.
“Until I am completely certain there is a path forward, certain about the relationship between Democracy Builders and Degrees of Freedom without Seth as CEO, I don’t feel comfortable inviting people to the campus, telling them everything is going to be fine,” she said. “I am not comfortable having young, vulnerable students coming here until those issues have been rectified.”
Stone said she wanted everyone to know that the program is not dependent on Andrew’s presence, that the team that has been working on the program for the past year has the the expertise and experience to make Degrees of Freedom a success.
“What I am really encouraged by is the number of partners who still stand behind us,” said Stone, “and the support of the student fellows who are helping us to develop the programs.”
Stone said she has also been encouraged by the members of the Marlboro community who have reached out to her and the team and offered them their support.
Stone said it would be a tragedy for the project to fail because it seeks to break generational poverty and provide education and experiences that can help black and brown students attain the same levels of employment and income as their white peers.
“Even with a college degree, these students are still earning less than their non-degreed white counterparts,” said Stone.
Stone noted that while Andrew is innocent until proven guilty, she is “really sad” about what he is alleged to have done.
“What I do know is his actions have implication for the rest of the team, reputationally,” she said. “And that is really frustrating.”