Higher education, music festival to stay at Marlboro after sale

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MARLBORO — After a process to find a suitable buyer bumped up against various challenges, the Potash Hill campus is now home to Democracy Builders, which plans to create a new higher education program and allow the Marlboro Music Festival to continue to stay on site.

Democracy Builders Fund Inc. agreed to pay the Corporation of Marlboro College $225,000 and contribute $1.5 million for new facilities being developed by Marlboro School of Music Inc as part of an earlier obligation, according to a purchase and sale agreement provided by the Vermont Attorney General's Office. The campus hosts about 50 buildings on about 533 acres of land.

In a news release last week, Democracy Builders announced the sale had been completed and described 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. The Degrees of Freedom program is anticipated to 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.

Marlboro College is merging with Emerson College in Boston, where an institute will be renamed to include Marlboro and reshaped in the mold of the Vermont school. Emerson also is anticipated to employ tenured and tenure-track Marlboro College staff, and accept Marlboro College undergraduates in good standing for the 2020/2021 academic year.

"Once things are wrapped up at Marlboro in the next few days, I will have no role with Marlboro or Emerson," Kevin Quigley, who has served as Marlboro College's president since 2015, said Tuesday in an email response to the Reformer. He had been looking for a way to maintain Marlboro's legacy in the face of financial hardship.

In a report last week, the Attorney General's Office said it did not object to the deals. Between 2009 and now, Marlboro College's enrollment and net tuition revenue "dramatically declined such that the college is currently operating at a multi-million-dollar annual deficit and is no longer financially sustainable," states the report.


Sara Coffey, a member of the Campus Working Group, said her group was "excited" about Democracy Builders because its proposal "really met much of our criteria and requirements which included maintaining community access to the trails, preserving the 130-acre ecological reserve and having a permanent space for Marlboro alumni and carrying on a legacy of education and experimentation while compatible with the Marlboro Music Festival."

Coffey, a state representative for Guilford and Vernon, graduated from the college and formerly served on its board of trustees. Her involvement with the Campus Working Group was separate from her job as a legislator.

The board created the Campus Working Group — made up of college staff, students, trustees, alumni and Marlboro residents who volunteered to participate — "to ensure a community-engaged process would inform the board on the future and the sale of the campus," Coffey said in an email response to the Reformer. "This in and of itself I think was unusual and reflected the culture of the college and the trustees' desire to consider the many communities of Marlboro."

Coffey said the working group met almost weekly from December to April, sharing summary notes to different stakeholders and on the college's website to ensure transparency and communication in the process. She noted group members held individual meetings, conducted surveys and had discussions to gather input from community members, alumni, staff and students.

That feedback informed the criteria: "Is the proposed use of campus realistic and is it consistent with the historical use of the campus? How well does the entity/individual demonstrate financial and organizational capacity or track record to carry out the project and steward the campus?"

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The criteria explored benefits to the community including public access to trails, stewardship of land and employment. Another factor involved the strength of the offer, the buyer's financial backing and sustainability.

The group also wanted to see if plans for the campus would be "compatible" with a 99-year lease agreement in place for the Marlboro Music School and Festival.

"This was a tall order," Coffey said of her group's scope of work, adding that it had only about three-and-a-half months to market the campus and solicit offers or proposals. "We were doing this in a real estate market where there were three other college campuses in Southern Vermont and other institutional properties on the market throughout New England. And we were working in an environment where there was a lot of emotional charge, and many of the [Campus Working Group] members were navigating our own personal grief and stress of the college leaving Vermont."

Those challenges were only exacerbated once the coronavirus pandemic hit. Still, Coffey said she's "really proud" of the group's work and accomplishments.

"Each member of the Campus Working Group brought their best selves to the work, and it was a very thoughtful and collaborative process," she said.

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She said she couldn't reveal information requested about the number of bidders and the nature of their offers because they were assured confidentiality.

"We received a range of proposals which included monetary and non-monetary proposals from a variety of sources (individuals with ideas to community members to businesses to organizations)," she said. "After evaluating the pool of proposals we reached consensus and made a unanimous recommendation to the Board of Trustees in late April to recommend Democracy Builders and their proposal to start Degrees of Freedom College."

Coffey called Marlboro College "an integral part of our community for 75 years."


"So for alumni, former faculty and staff and community members, its departure from Vermont is a tremendous loss," she said. "There is so much to mourn and process. There was also some real anxiety, division and harm done around the decisions to close the Vermont campus and merge with Emerson College. It's my personal hope that now that the merger has been finalized, that the community can find a process to come together to work through some of this and find a pathway forward so that we can get to know the new stewards of the campus and work with them in their efforts to bring a new model of higher education to southern Vermont to serve first-generation college students and students of color."

Last week, the project was the subject of a contentious special Marlboro Select Board meeting held via video conference. Afterwards, the board submitted 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 was a valuable opportunity to hear from your design team about its vision for the innovative new program on Potash Hill," the board wrote to Democracy Builders on Monday. "The meeting attracted 305 attendees and spanned three-and-a-half hours, so clearly there is a great deal of interest in your venture."

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Democracy Builders has been invited to the Select Board's Aug. 13 meeting. The board also is requesting the Vermont Council on Rural Development help coordinate a mediated forum in hopes the group will participate.

"Through sustained and open dialogue, we believe the well being of the greater Marlboro community will be better for it," the board said in the letter.

Democracy Builders thanked the board for reaching out and said, "We appreciate the response and will be in touch."

In a letter published last week, the college's board of trustees said trustees were able to talk with a spokesperson from Black N Brown at DP, the group making allegations via social media.

"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 trustees wrote. "The same working group of trustees and Board Chair who spoke with Black N Brown at DP also engaged in a discussion with [Democracy Builders founder] 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 has said he will not lead operations on the Marlboro campus and told the trustees that a president will be hired. Trustees said the three women of color they met with will be part of the leadership team.

The trustees also wrote about bringing in a volunteer consultant with expertise in education to evaluate performance reports and surveys from the schools, which "told a largely positive story."

"We appreciate DB's commitment to keeping the campus accessible for use by the community, especially the trails and ecological preserve," the trustees wrote. "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."

Democracy Builders said it will begin hosting a series of advisory board meetings and discussions with regulatory agencies in August. The goal is for the formal program to launch next year.

"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."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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