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Utopian Academy’s To-Do List

Until a dispute over a lease agreement is resolved, some 200 students enrolled in a start-up charter school in Clayton County will remain at home.

A final fix to a string of bureaucratic snafus that has kept Utopian Academy for the Arts from opening could come sometime this week, with the middle school students headed to class on Monday — a full week after they were supposed to start.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked the heads of the county school board and the charter school if the lease issue can be resolved quickly.

The school district owns the Camp Street complex where Utopian is housed. The district agreed earlier this year to rent the property to a nonprofit development group on behalf of Utopian Academy. But the group, Riverdale’s Downtown Development Authority, is now defunct. The question that must be settled now is whether the lease is transferable.

“We’re doing our best to resolve a very legally complicated confusion,” said Pam Adamson, chair of the Clayton County school board.

The lease is the latest round of red tape Utopian Academy has had to deal with in the last month. It initially was told by Riverdale officials it needed a business license to operate but that order was dropped.

The sticking point now is the lease. The school board recognizes the nonprofit Downtown Development Authority, Riverdale’s economic development arm, as the leaseholder and plans to ask the group for its cooperation in getting the issue fixed. But the head of the Southern Crescent Centre for Innovation said Wednesday that the DDA turned over the lease to his nonprofit in March.

“The lease doesn’t need to be reworked,” said Michael Syphoe, who runs Southern Crescent. “It was already in place. The Southern Crescent has full authority…”

The DDA chair and vice chair said Tuesday they had not been contacted by anyone yet.

“We’ll just wait to see what kind of amendment they’ll (school board) make to the lease,” said DDA chair Roland Downing.

Once the lease dispute is resolved, the city of Riverdale will makes its inspections, clearing the way for the students to go to school.

In the meantime, Utopian Academy staff spent Tuesday making further preparations in anticipation of welcoming the students. Taxpayers are devoting at least $1.2 million to operate Utopian.

Utopian Academy’s top two officers said Tuesday they were unaware of the depth of the problems surrounding the lease.

“We signed the lease with Southern Crescent in good faith,” said Utopian Academy Executive Director Artesius Miller, a 27-year-old former investment banker with a background in school operations. “We didn’t know that Southern Crescent did not have the authority to sublease to us. There’s frustration on our end. We thought they did their proper due diligence when they presented us with the lease agreement.”

Utopian Academy Principal Fred Birkett, a veteran of the charter school field, said the past couple of weeks has been exasperating.

“I’ve been doing charter school work for 17 years and I’ve never had a battle like this one,” said Birkett who helped start charter schools in Massachusetts, New York and Hawaii and written a couple of books on the subject.

Obstacles have shadowed the school since leaders tried unsuccessfully three times to get a charter approved through Clayton schools. It wasn’t until the state stepped in last fall that the school was able to begin making the opening a reality. Instead of prompting parents to bail, Monday’s troubles actually drew more students. Seven new students were enrolled on Monday, Miller said.

“If they’re bailing because the fight is tough. They didn’t need to be here in the first place,” said parent Jon Antoine who stopped by the school on Tuesday.

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