MARLBORO — The sale of the Marlboro College campus was finalized Wednesday but higher education is anticipated to stay.
The new owner, Democracy Builders, bills itself as "an education incubator that plans to launch a new type of late high school, early college model, primarily for first generation college students in grades 11-14" in Marlboro," according to a news release announcing the sale.
The group described the sale as a larger deal involving the transfer of Marlboro College's assets to Emerson College in Boston that opens "the way for a new kind of progressive education model that builds on Marlboro's 73-year legacy of democratic education."
"This is an exciting day for everyone involved in this ground-breaking project,'' Chandell Stone, chief growth officer of Democracy Builders, said in the news release. "We are excited to launch our new model, create jobs in Windham County, and expand educational opportunity for traditionally disenfranchised students."
A spokesperson for Democracy Builders said the price tag of the sale is confidential at the moment.
Democracy Builders said it plans to launch a program that will bring in students from around the region, and eventually the world, for multiple two-week residencies each year and earn them credits toward a degree. The goal is for the formal program to launch next year.
Seth Andrew, founder of Democracy Builders who served as a senior education and technology advisor in the Obama White House, described the initiative as "a more nimble, personalized, and career-targeted model of higher education that aims to respond to the needs we have heard from students, including lessening student debt and increasing positive outcomes.''
"The sale of the campus to Democracy Builders met the objectives set by our community-engaged campus working group: the buyer should be an educational institution, who would respect the college's legacy, allow ongoing alumni and community access and preserve at least 130 acres of the campus, and commit to fulfill the obligations of our long-term release to the Marlboro Music Festival," Kevin Quigley, college president, told the Reformer.
The plan is to continue having the campus serve as home to the Marlboro Music School and Festival, according to the release.
Earlier this week, the Vermont Attorney General's Office issued a notice stating it had no objection to the sale just before a contentious special Select Board meeting held via video conference where the project was discussed. The board plans to submit questions from the community to Democracy Builders, which started a charter school network known as Democracy Prep where allegations of bullying and racism from former students, families and staff have recently have come to the attention of local officials and residents.
“It’s been such a long, bruising and contentious process that at this point, I think folks are just tired and need a rest. So, let’s let the grieving process play out, knowing it’s in our best interest to heal and move on," Board Chairman Jesse Kreitzer said in an email to the Reformer.
In a letter published online Tuesday, the Marlboro College Board of Trustees said it was "eager to sell the campus to an educational entity that would be innovative and attract and enhance diversity in Vermont." Democracy Builders was recommended to the trustees by a working group made up of faculty, staff, representatives from the community, college alumni and members of the board.
"The working group had the opportunity to consider a number of proposals, and felt Democracy Builders provided the best opportunity to utilize the campus and at the same time prove beneficial to the community," the board said. "After we signed a binding legal agreement to sell the campus to DB, we received a disturbing letter from a group called BlackNBrown at DP, comprised of anonymous alumni and former employees of DP ... This information came to our attention well after the binding agreement was signed."
The board said several trustees are "deeply uncomfortable" with the "no excuses" charter school Democracy Prep represents and "believe it is in many ways antithetical to the educational pedagogy of Marlboro College."
Board members were able to talk with a spokesperson from BlackNBrown at DP named J. LeShae, according to the letter.
"Given the troubling nature of the complaints, we are doing everything in our power to encourage a positive and constructive learning environment for all students who come to Degrees of Freedom," the board said, referring to the name of the program proposed for the Marlboro campus. "The same working group of trustees and Board Chair who spoke with BlackNBrown at DP also engaged in a discussion with Seth Andrew and three leaders of DB's team: Chandell Stone, Jamie McCoy and Marcellina Blow-Cummings, all of whom are Black women with direct experience with DP as a parent, a student, and as a member of the faculty."
Andrew also provided "extensive reports and documentation" about the charter school network's performance over the years, according to the letter. The board said a volunteer consultant with expertise in educational evaluated helped it discern ratings and outcomes. They also reviewed annual survey results conducted by the New York City Department of Education.
"The reports and surveys told a largely positive story, and DP schools annually conduct lotteries because many more families apply than the schools can accommodate," the board said.
Andrew has said he will not lead operations on the Marlboro campus and told the trustees a president will be hired. Trustees said the leadership will include the three women of color they met with.
"We appreciate DB's commitment to keeping the campus accessible for use by the community, especially the trails and ecological preserve," the letter states. "The DB team is now on campus, working on program design. We hope that they will be successful in creating a program on Potash Hill that treats all students, staff and faculty with dignity and respect in keeping with antiracist principles and practices.We have arranged for a meeting between representatives of Democracy Builders' team and residents of Marlboro, as well as present and past College personnel and alumni, to start an ongoing working relationship. We believe this will provide opportunity for fruitful dialogue about engaging in antiracist work as a community, use of the campus by its neighbors, and what is needed to produce a successful program on Potash Hill that will serve future first generation college students. We hope that the Democracy Builders' team and the residents of Marlboro and Brattleboro will come to those conversations with an open mind and a willingness to engage in authentic and respectful dialogue with the intention of finding a way to work together so that it will be beneficial to everyone, including the future students of Degrees of Freedom."
The board said it acknowledges and regrets any anguish the sale has caused to the community.
"While we fully expect that a school focused on first generation college students will be different, we hope that Potash Hill will remain a place of servant leadership where all community members-students, faculty, staff, and neighbors — respect and honor each others' full humanity and worth," the letter ends.
Democracy Builders said it will begin hosting a series of advisory board meetings and discussions with regulatory agencies next month. The group expressed thanks to the trustees and Campus Working Group.