Clayton County Schools Superintendent Luvenia Jackson (center) is working to craft a deal with Utopian Academy for the Arts, a startup charter school, so that some 200 middle school students can begin classes there.

Clayton schools superintendent enters Utopian fray

Clayton County Schools Superintendent Luvenia Jackson has asked a Riverdale economic development group to end its lease with the school board so that it can quickly work out a deal with a startup charter school to get their kids in school.

Some 200 middle school students have been prevented from starting school at Utopian Academy for the Arts this week because of a series of bureaucratic snafus. Meanwhile their peers enrolled in Clayton County public schools head to class today.

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County school officials and Riverdale city government officials are scrambling to resolve the problem. The sticking point centers around a lease originally signed between the school board and the Downtown Development Authority in Riverdale. The school district owns the Riverdale building housing Utopian Academy. The DDA held the lease until it turned it over to an small business incubator earlier this year. The DDA hasn’t met since March.

To fast-track a solution, Jackson sent a letter to the DDA Tuesday asking the group to end its lease with the school district.

“This is a request that the RDDA (Riverdale Downtown Development Authority) take steps to approve this lease termination as soon as possible, as any delay will hinder efforts of the (school) board and Utopia to seek a resolution that will allow the Utopia students to start school,” Jackson said in the letter obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Utopian Executive Director Artesius Miller called the letter a “huge step” and said it gives the charter school “leverage” to go to Riverdale city officials to get its inspections, the final step in getting the kids in school. Utopian officials are hoping to start school on Monday.

DDA chairman Roland Downing said on Thursday morning he had not received the letter yet and would need to see its contents before commenting. DDA vice chairman Al Jackson declined to comment.

The letter also admonished the DDA for turning the lease over to Southern Crescent Centre for Innovation which then apparently improperly signed a lease with Utopian. It also chastised DDA for allowing two charter schools to occupy the building. The first charter school Scholars Academy left the building in June.

The original lease began on May 1, 2013 between the school board and the DDA for “the purpose of establishing a business incubator,” the letter stated. It went on to state that the facility on Camp Street could only be used for offices and light manufacturing.

“It would seem a stretch in logic far beyond the intent of the agreement to say that classroom instruction could fit in either category,” Jackson stated in the letter. Nonetheless, the school board Monday night took steps to allow Utopian to open so that its students could go to school.

Michael Syphoe, the head of Southern Crescent, said earlier this week he believed he inked a valid deal with Utopian because he said Jackson was aware of the initial charter school being in the building. But Syphoe, the former DDA executive director, conceded in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this week that Jackson never signed anything that would indicate a change to the original master lease. The original lease states no charter schools are allowed in the building. Efforts to reach Syphoe Thursday morning were unsuccessful.

Utopian gets about $6,400 per student - or nearly $1.3 million from the Georgia Quality Based Education program.

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