Democracy Prep.” Credit: Dave

July 15, 2020, Brattleboro Reformer

The board of trustees for Marlboro College is forging ahead with the sale of its campus to the nonprofit Democracy Builders Fund, which intends to reimagine higher education through its project, Democracy Prep. The decision was made despite anonymous allegations of abuse, racism, and favoritism at Seth Andrew’s Democracy Prep charter schools.

Andrew plans to have classes start in Marlboro this fall, with student groups coming for two-week sessions from charter schools in Washington, DC. He also hopes to establish undergraduate programs, possibly named Degrees of Freedom, in Marlboro.

The chair of the college board of trustees, Dick Saudek, says the trustees performed an “11th-hour review” after they learned about charges made on social media by Black N Brown at Democracy Prep, a group that purports to be composed of current and former students, parents, faculty, and staff. The trustees are continuing with the sale of the campus, part of the merger of Vermont’s Marlboro College into Emerson College in Boston. The sale should be complete by the end of July.

Saudek tells the Brattleboro Reformer that the trustees have “no reason to doubt the concerns raised by Black N Brown.” At the same time, though, “there are other reports that are favorable.”

“We reviewed a number of aspects of Democracy Builders’ record,” Saudek says. “We found that they have established an impressive number of schools and were teaching many thousands of children. We also recognized that some of their schools had not stood the test of time, but on balance it appeared their model had succeeded.”

It should be noted that Democracy Builders Fund’s file with the IRS is problematic. The IRS Determination Letter for its Public Charity designation is dated February 23, 2016, replacing a determination dated February 20, 2014…but according to the IRS, the 501c3 was revoked on November 15, 2016 for not submitting three years’ worth of 990 tax filings. There is a 990 available for June 30, 2017 on GuideStar that’s dated May 15, 2018, so the revocation may have been rescinded at this point. Even more significant is the fact that the 990 lists revenue of only $608,347. The sale price for the 58 buildings on 530 acres has not been disclosed.

At a July 9th meeting, the town of Marlboro’s Select Board heard charges of racist treatment at Democracy Prep. A former staff member of Democracy Prep, Zenzile Keith, spoke to the Select Board of a “number of racist and white supremacist actions” she witnessed against both students and women in supervisory positions.

“I find it very disturbing that a person like Seth can purchase a university that is supposed to train people to work together when he has absolute disrespect for Black and brown people,” Keith said. “Don’t allow someone like this to come into your community and spread the kind of hate he has for Black and brown bodies.”

A spokesperson for Black N Brown, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Select Board that the collective has been sharing more than 350 stories about the charter schools and “the catastrophic legacy” of Andrew, sharing “the absolute atrocities that left hundreds of Democracy Prep students, staff, and parents traumatized in its wake.”

The statements posted on Facebook that caused concern to college alumni and former college faculty were typed on image files and attributed to, for example, “DP Harlem HS/Democracy Prep Student,” or “DP Harlem Middle/Democracy Prep Staff” within a set of years meant to represent when the student attended or staff member was employed there.

Despite the fact that the Select Board has no power over a real estate sale, on Tuesday, Jesse Kreitzer, the Select Board chair, issued a statement from the Board calling on the Marlboro College board of trustees and the Vermont attorney general’s office “to conduct a thorough investigation of the testimonies made by the collective, and to be transparent in its findings.”

“We have concerns about everything we have been hearing,” resident Andy Horton said via Zoom during the July 9th meeting. “We’d like to hear more from Seth, and we would like the Select Board to ask some deep questions about what his pedagogy is, what his intent is and how students will be treated. The stories I have heard are very discouraging. It’s not the kind of institution we might want at Marlboro.”

Andrew has said he is willing to hold a public meeting about the plans for the campus after the sale has been completed.

Lissa Harris, Marlboro Elementary school board member, said it is the responsibility of the Marlboro community to hold Andrew, or anybody else who hopes to purchase the campus, accountable.

“We are committed to making sure that Black and brown people in our community and beyond are not subject to the kind of victimization, abuse and racism we have been reading about,” Harris said.

“At the last board meeting, Seth talked a really good story,” Board member Aaron Betts said, admitting he was “enthralled” by Andrew. “I left that meeting feeling good.” After hearing the statements at the meeting, Betts isn’t feeling so good anymore. “His lack of integrity is extremely troubling. But more troubling is the toxicity that was there for staff, students and parents. He is just not prepared to run such a college.”

Andrew posted an essay, “Reflections on Race & Democracy Prep,” to the online platform Medium on June 24, 2020. (The essay has since been removed.) He admitted to making mistakes in the first year and offered an apology for “perpetuating systemic racism.” He also committed to have a board with a majority of people of color and recruit similar staff and faculty at Democracy Builders (which listed no employees on the 990 from June 30, 2017).

“I commit to listening more critically and humbly to the experiences of students, staff, and communities of color, and holding space for them to do so authentically,” he wrote. “I understand that injuries occurred, and I will continue to take responsibility for my part in them. I understand that without a process or forum for them to be aired, hurt can linger.”

There seem to be several reasons to doubt the sincerity of that statement.—Marian Conway