Marlboro College

In June 2020, Seth Andrew's Democracy Builders bought the former Marlboro College campus for $225,000 in cash and the assumption of $1.5 million debt the college owed to the Marlboro Music Festival. Andrew was arrested and removed from its board.

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MARLBORO — A task force consisting of Marlboro Music board members, administrators and senior musicians, which includes several full-time and part-time Marlboro residents, has been set up to evaluate options for Potash Hill, the former campus of Marlboro College, and make recommendations as to what they see could be the best use of the property going forward.

"Marlboro Music did not set out to try and buy the campus," said Chris Serkin, chairman of the board of Marlboro Music and grandson of one of the founders, Rudolf Serkin. "Because of that, we're not walking into this position with a plan for this property that's fully formed."

Serkin and Philip Maneval, manager of the Marlboro Music School and Festival, were the featured guests of last Saturday's Marlboro Community Center Zoom Coffee Hour.

"We felt we had no choice given the situation we found ourselves in," said Serkin. "We felt we really had to step in."

Founded in 1946, Marlboro College had struggled for many years to maintain its campus as enrolment dwindled and revenues dropped. In September 2019, the college backed out of an agreement with the University of Bridgeport that would have kept some classes on Potash Hill. Later in 2019, Marlboro College announced a merger with Emerson College that resulted in the closure of the local campus and the establishment of the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies in Boston.

In July 2020, the Corporation of Marlboro College sold the campus to Democracy Builders Fund 1 for a total of $1,725,000 in cash and debt, a sum far below the property’s assessed value.

Democracy Builders swept into Marlboro with grand plans to open Degrees of Freedom, a hybrid charter school program for high school students who would visit the campus for two weeks, three times a year. Degrees of Freedom also hoped to start an associates degree program, aimed at “empowering students from disenfranchised groups and giving them the skills to be leaders in their community,” according to news releases.

Degrees of Freedom was set to open in the fall of 2021 but before that could happen, one of its founders, Seth Andrew, was arrested in April, accused of stealing $218,000 from Democracy Prep, the charter school network that he founded in 2005. 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 in the Obama White House. His case is still pending in federal court in New York. Earlier this month, Andrew accepted a plea deal in a federal court in New York City and is expected to be sentenced in April.

Before his arrest, Andrew had reached a deal to sell the campus to Adrian Stein, of Type 1 Civilization Academy, with Degrees of Freedom as a tenant.

With Andrew's arrest, Democracy Builders abandoned its Degrees of Freedom program and eventually sold the campus to Marlboro Music $2,740,000, reaching a "modest" financial agreement with Type 1 to relinquish its ownership claim.

"We now find ourselves trying to figure out exactly how to put this property, this important property, to use," Serkin said during Saturday's Zoom call. "Whatever use of the property emerges it has to meet our financial needs."

Serkin said the annual cost to manage the campus is between $1.2 million and $1.5 million, and that doesn't count any capital improvements that Potash Hill, the nonprofit established to manage the campus, might have to undertake.

"We're going to be looking for uses that will generate that money either in revenue or philanthropy or a combination of the two," said Serkin.

If Potash Hill is able to find a tenant or tenants for the campus, he said, it will have to be a tenant that has to "largely vacate the campus every summer, including most of the housing."

Whatever partner Potash Hill finds, said Serkin, the use has to be "respectful of the property and its legacy" and that use has to be harmonious with Marlboro Music's mission, its ideals and its values.

"This place is our home," he said. "It holds a lot of history for us, it holds a lot of history for a lot of you. And that's really important to us."

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Potash Hill also intends to preserve the ecological value of the 560-acre property, said Serkin.

"Ideally, it's going to be a use that focuses on the arts, or education, or the environment, or some combination of those three."

At this point in the early stage of searching for a partner or partners, he said, nothing is being ruled out as long as it those preconditions are met.

If all else fails, said Serkin, "We are also open to, although cautiously and reluctantly so, having to do something ourselves. But we are very mindful that we just don't have the organizational or financial capacity to stand something up."

He described the first step of the process as "basically a research project" seeking to identify potential partners while exploring "the philanthropic landscape to understand what ideas might be appealing to folks who are in a position to support projects."

To assist the task force, Potash Hill has hired a consultant to conduct interviews and report back.

"This is simply someone to help conduct structured interviews and give us the information we need. ... As we start to hone in on a couple of the most plausible seeming ideas, we are going to have to conduct really meaningful due diligence ..."

Serkin said the Marlboro Music Festival board will make the final decision.

"Our objective in the near term is to protect the property and all of the assets, all of the land and buildings that come with it, until we have a sense of what we're going to need and aren't going to need."

The process will be slower than people want, he said, because it's expensive.

"It's really important for us ... to be thoughtful and careful and deliberative, especially after the year that we have all been through."

Serkin said while no partners have been identified yet, one of the ideas that has been floated is making room for the Marlboro Elementary School.

"We are absolutely open to exploring this," he said. "We see a lot of positive opportunities there. ... As a graduate of that elementary school ... I love the idea of having the elementary school there. It's in the mix, but we're just not in the position to make a commitment quite yet on that."

Marlboro Music was founded on Potash Hill in 1951, by pianist Rudolf Serkin, violinist Adolf Busch, cellist Hermann Busch, flutist Marcel Moyse, violinist/conductor Blanche Moyse, and flutist Louis Moyse. Today, it is led by pianists Mitsuko Uchida and Jonathan Biss.

Questions or ideas about for the campus should be emailed to Brigid Lucey at blucey@marlboromusic.org.

To receive notifications for future Marlboro Community Center Zoom Coffee Hours, email MarlboroCommunityCenter@gmail.com.

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