The founder of a Harlem-born network of nonprofit charter schools once lauded for his “compelling new vision” for public education is headed to prison – for stealing from the very schools he helped launch.
Seth Andrew, 43, once honored as a “Hometown Hero” in education by the Daily News, was sentenced Thursday in a federal courtroom in Manhattan to 366 days in prison, plus three years of supervised release. He pleaded guilty in January to charges he defrauded the well-regarded Democracy Prep Public Schools (DPPS) network of more than $218,000.
The sentencing marked the messy end of a public service career that won Andrew accolades as the leader of taxpayer-backed schools known for achieving high marks in high-poverty neighborhoods, starting with the “flagship” middle school in Harlem in 2006, and later reaching some 7,100 students in communities from Texas to New Jersey. He left DPPS in 2017.
“Seth Andrew was sentenced today for stealing from those who once trusted him,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams, of the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.
"Seth Andrew was sentenced today for stealing from those who once trusted him."
In court papers, prosecutors detailed a complicated scheme aimed at supporting another education venture backed by Andrew – this one in Vermont. The theft proceeds, while under Andrew’s control, also helped the former Bronx High School of Science graduate qualify for a cheaper mortgage on a Manhattan apartment, prosecutors said.
A bid to rejoin DPPS
Andrew parlayed national acclaim as an education innovator into a position with the U.S. Department of Education and a later role as a White House education adviser in the Obama administration, before officially severing his relationship with DPPS in 2017. The trouble began about two years later, according to prosecutors.
In 2019, Andrew was rebuffed in a bid to rejoin DPPS. Leaders of the burgeoning schools network rejected Andrew’s offer to return as DPPS president – as a $25,000-a-month salaried employee, plus a $250,000 incentive bonus, prosecutors said.
Andrew wrote DPPS leadership, “every single day that goes by, this situation becomes exponentially more difficult and the ability to pull out of a nosedive becomes harder. So after 24 hours, my monthly salary expectation will go up every day that we’re not under a signed contract.” Prosecutors said the ultimatum didn’t get Andrew rehired either.
Well after severing his relationship with DPPS, Andrew duped banks into letting him access DPPS funds, primarily escrow accounts maintained by the network, prosecutors said. The money eventually landed in an account held in the name of Democracy Builders, "another nonprofit that Andrew then-controlled."
Prosecutors said the money was used “for a down payment on a significant purchase of property” – land on the former Marlboro College campus in Vermont, where Andrew helped launch another educational program.
“In total, DPPS lost $218,005 as a result of Andrew’s actions,” Williams’ office said.
'Important work continues'
Andrew pleaded guilty to a single count of wire fraud in January. Prior to Thursday’s sentencing, he paid full restitution to DPPS and forfeited $22,537, according to prosecutors.
“Andrew committed this crime to attempt to punish non-profit charter schools because they declined his offer to return as their leader,” Williams said. “Thankfully, the victim of Andrew’s crime was resilient, and its important work continues.”
The Daily News recognized Andrew in 2013 as one of its “Hometown Heroes in Education,” crediting him with creating a “compelling new vision for public education.” On Thursday, it carried Andrew’s apology in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge John P. Cronan: “I am profoundly sorry and ask for your forgiveness,” according to the report.
Princess Lyles, a DPPS spokeswoman, said in an email to Gothamist, “We are grateful this sad chapter is finally closed and thank the U.S. Attorney and FBI for their hard work on the case.” The schools network relies on local, state and federal funding sources, and “private philanthropy for strategic initiatives,” according to its website.
Based in part on the early successes of the Harlem middle school, the network won federal grants in 2012 and 2016 that have helped fuel its expansion, with aims to eventually reach 10,000 students. Its website touts the “best practices” of charter schools nationwide as having “proved for more than 20 years that demographics do not determine destiny and that low-income students can be successful in the college of their choice.”