Education

A $1M PPP loan, a 500-acre property in dispute and a school in limbo: The Marlboro saga continues

Seth Andrew, left, takes part in a Brookings Institution panel discussion in January 2012, during his time leading Democracy Prep. Andrew is now seeking to purchase the Marlboro College campus through his non-profit Democracy Builders. Photos via Medill DC/Courtesy Marlboro College
Seth Andrew, left, takes part in a panel discussion in January 2012; Marlboro College campus. Photos via Medill DC/Courtesy Marlboro College

The plot continues to thicken in Marlboro.

A month after Seth Andrew, the man who pledged to reinvent higher education in southern Vermont, was arrested by federal authorities in New York for allegedly stealing more than $200,000 from a network of charter schools he founded, little remains settled at the now-defunct Marlboro College.

It’s unclear what will become of Degrees of Freedom, the “higher education experience” that Democracy Builders, the nonprofit helmed by Andrew which bought the Marlboro campus last summer, promised to create. 

The Marlboro Music Festival, which holds a 99-year lease with the campus, has filed suit and is asking a judge to sort out to whom it should be paying rent. 

And no one appears able to account for the more than 200 people on payroll when Democracy Builders received a nearly $1 million Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government in spring 2020.

“But wait, there’s more!” one onlooker recently commented in a Marlboro alumni Facebook group.

Andrew will plead not guilty, his attorney has said. An arraignment date has not yet been set. Filings with the court indicate that Andrew is relocating from Vermont to Rhode Island.

Who owns the campus remains very much in dispute. Democracy Builders purchased the 500-acre property last summer from Marlboro College in exchange for taking on a $1.5 million obligation to the music festival and $225,000 in cash. But later that winter, the nonprofit brokered a $9.4 million deal with Canadian businessman Adrian Stein to sell the campus but remain as a tenant.

Stein, in an interview with VTDigger, claimed Andrew reached out last summer, within weeks of the campus sale involving Democracy Builders and Marlboro College, to ask Stein — who had previously bid on the property — if he had any interest in quietly purchasing the campus.

The Toronto businessman agreed, and after months of negotiations, the deed was transferred to Type 1 Civilization Academy, an LLC Stein controlled, on Jan. 21. But the relationship between Stein and Andrew almost immediately soured. Andrew quickly demanded his new landlord pay about $283,000 in maintenance costs, Stein said. The Canadian said he began looking into the bills Andrew was requesting reimbursement for and found at least $26,000 hadn’t been paid.

“He wasn’t happy with an investigation of the invoices, and I think basically, you know, he wanted everything — the money, possession of the campus, control of the campus, and ultimately, the campus back and money,” Stein said.

Andrew filed a pre-executed deed with the Marlboro town clerk’s office, reclaiming the property in late February, citing unpaid maintenance obligations. Officials with Democracy Builders maintain this means the property is theirs. Stein says it’s fraudulent.

The Marlboro Music School, which has held its world-renowned classical music festival at the campus for the past 70 years, filed a lawsuit in Windham Superior Court asking the court to settle the dispute.

“We can’t afford to pay rent to the wrong party,” said Christopher Serkin, chair of the festival’s board of trustees. In the interim, Serkin said, the festival would proceed with preparation for this summer’s programming on the campus.

“We’ll be going ahead,” he said. “The only question is who collects our rent.”

Meanwhile, a nearly $1 million Paycheck Protection Program loan received by Democracy Builders in May 2020, as first reported by Vermont Business Magazine, has only raised more questions.

The number of jobs purportedly retained by the $943,365 PPP loan stands in sharp contrast with all other publicly available information about the entity. That loan allegedly helped save 270 jobs, according to a federal database. 

But Democracy Builders had less than $400,000 in expenses during the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to its most recently available federal tax returns. And a subsequent PPP loan it received in March of this year retained only 18 jobs, according to a federal database.

The PPP loan received by Democracy Builders in May used a San Francisco address that VoteAmerica, a nonprofit dedicated to voting rights, would eventually use to incorporate itself. VoteAmerica is a project of Debra Cleaver, the well-known founder of Vote.org, who split with Vote.org in a bitter dispute in the months before the 2020 election.

VoteAmerica was fiscally sponsored by Democracy Builders for a part of 2020, Cleaver said, while the organization sought its own tax-exempt status from the IRS. That meant VoteAmerica staff members were briefly on Democracy Builder’s payroll, although the voting group “maintained control and oversight of all charitable dollars raised for VoteAmerica programs at all times,” she said.

The get-out-the-vote-outfit employed only about 20 people at the time, Cleaver said, and wasn’t involved in applying for the Covid-19-relief loan.

“The VoteAmerica team was not aware of any activity related to the charges against Seth Andrew, and no one on the VoteAmerica team reviewed, approved, or applied for the Payroll Protection Program loan in question,” she wrote in an email. 

Chandell Stone, the CEO of Degrees of Freedom, referred questions about the loan to the Democracy Builders board of trustees. Alize-Jazel Smith, Democracy Builders’s newly named trustee chair, said in a statement that the board “appreciates the questions and is currently reviewing the matter as part of its due diligence as fiduciaries.”

“Until it has an opportunity to complete its review of this matter, it believes any comment is premature and potentially prejudicial to its process,” she added.

Through his Burlington-based attorney, Tim Doherty of Downs Rachlin Martin, Andrew declined to comment.

And finally, Degrees of Freedom, the experimental college — which cannot yet legally confer degrees — that Democracy Builders promised to build in Marlboro is on hiatus. Stone and board members have said they have severed ties with Andrew and are attempting to incorporate the project separately. 

In an interview with the online education news outlet The 74, Stone said Degrees of Freedom would welcome a class of students in the fall of 2022, even though several financial backers have pulled out.

The Degrees of Freedom website briefly stated this week that the initiative was now a project of Dunia Collegiate, a proposed charter school in Georgia. But by Wednesday, those references were scrubbed from the website, which has been emptied of most content. 

Stone, who is also listed as Dunia’s “lead founder” on that school’s website, did not answer a phone call and email sent about it. And on Tuesday, in response to a question about rumors that she had quit Degrees of Freedom, she responded that she was indeed still CEO — but on vacation.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is VTDigger's education reporter. Prior to Digger, Lola covered schools for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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