This story was updated at 9:42 p.m.
The Vermont Attorney General’s Office has given the green light for Marlboro College to merge with Emerson College and sell its campus to Democracy Builders, a nonprofit headed by a charter school network founder planning to create a new kind of institution of higher education on Potash Hill.
The southern Vermont college’s plan to shut down has engendered tremendous pushback in the local Marlboro community, and critics of the deal had hoped the AG’s office might intervene to stop it from going through. But officials with AG’s office have said for weeks that the scope of their regulatory role was limited.
Before a nonprofit “disposes of all, or substantially all, of its property,” it is required by law to
notify the AG’s office, which can then review the transaction to make sure the charity’s assets go to entities aligned with the organization’s original mission.
“This transition has been difficult, but Marlboro College has acted consistent with its fiduciary duty and has done its best to address the interests of students and faculty,” Attorney General TJ Donovan said in a statement. “The transfer of Marlboro College’s assets is consistent with its mission and donor restrictions. As a result, there is no basis under Vermont law for the Attorney General’s Office to intervene in the transfer of assets to Emerson College or the campus sale to Democracy Builders.”
Marlboro College officials announced last year that the school would wind down operations at the end of the year and transfer its $30 million endowment and real estate holdings, valued at the time at about $10 million, to Emerson. In exchange, the Boston college has promised to honor all tenure agreements and take on all Marlboro undergraduates at a comparable price.
Emerson had said from the start that it was not interested in Marlboro’s campus. Democracy Builders, a nonprofit that founded Democracy Prep Public Schools, a national charter school network, has signed a purchase agreement with the Marlboro College board of trustees for the 500-acre property. The sale price has not been disclosed.
Democracy Builders has said they plan to create a low-residency, two-year associate degree program tailored to low-income, first-generation students. Degrees of Freedom, as the initiative is billed, touts itself as an “an early-college, late-high school program that offers students in grades 11-14 a fully-funded, flexible, and career-targeted degree.”
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Questions have been raised about the group, which have released few details about their plans. Seth Andrew, who founded Democracy Builders and the Democracy Prep network, had earlier said the program would open in September. But the group does not appear to have yet secured accreditation, and had not begun the process of applying for authorization to operate as a degree-granting institution in Vermont as of mid-July. Andrew and Democracy Prep is also under fire from a group of former staff and students, who say the network’s practices – and particularly its discipline practices – were racist and abusive.
Chandell Stone, the director of recruitment for Degrees of Freedom, said during a selectboard meeting Monday night that the project’s start date had been significantly pushed back.
“We are postponing opening to September 2022 to make sure that not only are we partnered with an institution that I think speaks to the strides that we want to make as an organization but until we are able to secure our own accreditation,” she said.
The three-hour-long meeting was dedicated to Democracy Builders’ plans for the campus, and the allegations being made on social media by Black N Brown at DP, a collective of former Democracy Prep students and employees who charge the school’s harsh discipline practices were abusive, and inherently racist, given that the school mostly served low-income students of color.
Shakira O’Kane, a former Democracy Prep college counselor, said she decided to speak out to put a “a face and a name” to Black N Brown’s concerns, which O’Kane said were being unfairly dismissed because most of the group’s posts were anonymous.
“I’m very interested to see what is going to be said here around how that same ethos, that lived and existed at Democracy Prep, while I personally was there, will not be taking place at Degrees of Freedom,” she said.
But Andrew had his defenders as well. Tish Moya, a former Democracy Prep student, said she wanted to speak to “positive experience that I had at DP. And that is the ability to think freely, be innovative, be creative, and strive for the kind of future that I wanted for myself as a young Latina woman.”
“Seth Andrew was one of the many faculty members who challenged, supported, cared – Cared very much and listened to me,” she added.
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