Sign of the times: Riverdale vs Utopian Academy charter school

Utopian Academy Executive Director Artesius Miller stands in front of bare sign that is the center of school’s dispute with city of Riverdale.
Utopian Academy Executive Director Artesius Miller stands in front of bare sign that is the center of school’s dispute with city of Riverdale.

Credit: Tammy Joyner

Credit: Tammy Joyner

Utopian Academy for the Arts: At A Glance

Type of school: state-approved charter school

Opened: 2014

Location: 6630 Camp St. in Riverdale

Students: 275

Executive Director: Artesius Miller

Anyone looking for the Utopian Academy for the Arts would be hard-pressed to find the tiny charter school. No signs mark the modest brick building on Camp Street in Riverdale. The marquee outside the school is bare.

School officials said they were forced to remove from the face of the building a temporary banner emblazoned with the school’s name a week before school opened Aug. 10. Riverdale officials said it violated city ordinances. The marquee sign in front of the school also was off-limits, Utopian administrators were told, because they didn’t have permission from the building’s owner to use it. The Clayton County Board of Education owns the Camp Street complex that houses Utopian.

“Our school has been stripped completely naked of our identity outside of our school building,” said Artesius Miller, executive director of the 275-student school.

Riverdale city officials say the issue has been blown out of proportion.

“They’re welcome to use the monument sign provided they meet city code,” Riverdale City Manager Scott Wood told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Under Riverdale’s city code adopted in 2011 that means permanently-affixed lettering that can be lit from inside the marquee cabinet or externally lit - a project that would cost about several thousand dollars, a city official said.

The sign saga is the latest in an ongoing dispute between Utopian and Riverdale. The two sides clashed a year ago over lease agreements, business permits and other governmental regulations. Its inaugural opening last year was delayed more than a week after fire marshals prevented the staff, students and parents from entering the building because the school needed a fire and building inspection.

Utopian's rocky start led to the creation of a state law that provides charter schools with more protection from local government obstruction. The "Utopian Academy for the Arts Act", which went into effect in July, bans local governments from requiring public charter schools that have been approved and inspected by state Department of Education officials to get any other licenses from local government agencies to operate.

The law, however, does not protect a charter school’s signage.

Clayton school board member Jesse Goree said Utopian has the right to use the marquee according to the school board’s lease with the school.

“My understanding when I last spoke with Mayor Dixon is that all that’s been resolved. I’m not sure why it came back up,” she said.

Mayor Evelyn Winn-Dixon told The AJC the city “rectified all the sign and ordinance issues” before school started.

“We have no issues whatsoever with Utopia except(for) the small things they have to correct.”