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Utopian Academy For The Arts| Georgia Approved Charter Middle School » Utopian Warns Riverdale To ‘Cease And Desist’ Bullying After City Tries To Shut Down School Cafeteria

RIVERDALE – A lawyer representing Utopian Academy for the Arts has put the City of Riverdale on notice that if illegal “bullying” of the public charter school continues, Utopian will sue the city for intentionally interfering with school operations. The demand to cease and desist was sent by the law firm of McGuire Woods after Utopian Academy received yet another visit from a Riverdale code enforcement officer warning the school to obtain a business license. The notice was issued on Sept. 15 when Officer T. Windley wandered onto campus asking a janitor to summon the school’s food and nutrition manager. The officer did not alert the front office that he was on campus or provide identification, school officials said. The notice accused Utopian of failing to comply with Riverdale Code Section II – Article 68-33-1 by operating a cafeteria without a business license. Utopian was given one day to “obtain a current Occupational Tax Permit to continue operating [its] business” or face a shut down of the schoolcafeteria. The city also demanded that Utopian’s cafeteria vendor obtain a food service permit from Clayton County even though Utopian already has one.

 Utopian Warns Riverdale To ‘Cease And Desist’ Bullying After City Tries To Shut Down School Cafeteria

“It is self-evident that Utopian is being maliciously and selectively prosecuted in a manner that is discriminatory and distinct from the city’s treatment of Clayton County School District,” attorney Robert Fortson wrote in a letter to the city. “

“It is self-evident that Utopian is being maliciously and selectively prosecuted in a manner that is discriminatory and distinct from the city’s treatment of Clayton County School District,” attorney Robert Fortson wrote in a letter to the city. “We have confirmed with the Georgia Department of Education that it is not aware of an occupational tax or food service permit being required of any food service provider anywhere in the state … Any further attempts by city officials to enter onto Utopian’s premises without properly identifying themselves will result in immediate notification of state and local police and prosecution for trespass.”Artesius Miller, executive director for Utopian Academy, said he and the school’s governing board are losing patience with the city and will no longer be bullied. The board is willing to sue the city if necessary to keep the cafeteria open for students and to stop the harassment over unnecessary business permits. Utopian Academy uses the state-approved vendor Southern Hospitality Management Group to operate the school cafeteria, which feeds about 240 students daily. Students are served meals that are prepared onsite.”If people came over to the school and treated this like it was a drive-thru for a fast food restaurant, I could easily see why we would need a business license,” said Artesius Miller, executive director of.Utopian Academy. “We are serving food to public school kids. This is harassment. The city is trying to bully us in a different fashion.”Utopian was issued a similar notice of violation in July demanding that Miller obtain a business license to operate the school in Riverdale even though Utopian is a public school. In August, the school was told to remove its banner sign – the only identifying marker on the building with the name of the school. Utopian also was prohibited from using the marquee sign on the front lawn because the school does not have lettering that meets city specifications. Several nearby schools and businesses, however, have the same banner signs that Utopian was asked to remove including Church Street Elementary. Attorney Fortson said the city’s arbitrary actions show “selective enforcement of law” and are in violation of state and federal regulations. According to Georgia statute 48-13-7, since Utopian’s cafeteria vendor pays occupational taxes in Tennessee, it is exempt from paying them to Riverdale. It operates at the school solely to serve students there.

Yvonne Garrett, marketing and program director for the Memphis-based Southern Hospitality Management Group, said the firm has never experienced so many roadblocks to feeding kids. “We have been in business for 10 years,” she said. Tiffany Hall, Utopian’s Director of Nutrition, agrees the city’s demands are malicious. She said Utopian does not need a business permit, and it has already been issued a food service permit by the Clayton County Department of Public Health, which covers the use of the cafeteria to provide meals for students. “The city is still giving us a hard time,” she said. “We would have no way of feeding the kids if we did not have a company to provide food.” The ongoing battle with the City of Riverdale is weighing heavily on Utopian Academy schoolleaders as they decide how to expand the school to accommodate more students. Utopian must soon tell the Clayton County Board of Education whether it intends to buy the campus or look elsewhere for a permanent location. A fresh start is becoming more appealing to administrators with each notice of violation sent by the city. “When you have a city that has made every attempt to hinder the operations of our school and our growth that is nothing but an indicator that this is a toxic environment that is not best for our school or any other school that is seeking to thrive,” Miller said. “We have to make the best decision for us. It does include us looking for facilities outside of Riverdale.”


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August 31, 2015August 31, 2015
RIVERDALE - When 300 students at Utopian Academy for the Arts reported to classes last week, there was no sign on the lawn letting them know that they had reached the right place. The name of the school had been removed by order of the City of Riverdale.This week the sign is still bare.The City of Riverdale has prohibited Utopian from using its school sign to welcome visitors or identify the building until administrators secure a business license. School officials, however, maintain that Utopian is a public school so a business license is not necessary. The debate has caused the school to accrue fines in the hundreds of dollars for violating city code. Administrators say the fees and threats are just another attempt to “bully” Utopian into pulling out of Riverdale.“They don’t want people to know that a school exists at 6630 Camp Street,” said Artesius Miller, executive director of Utopian. “They have stripped us naked and said basically ‘You all will not have anything so that people will know that you are even here’.”Similar tactics last year resulted in delaying the opening of school for more than a week. A Clayton County fire marshal denied administrators, teachers, and students the right to access the building saying that Utopian needed a last minute inspection among other things to occupy the premises. Utopian lost 80 students after its delayed opening.Utopian’s rocky start inspired legislation to protect state-approved public charter schools from similar stall tactics. The "Utopian Academy for the Arts Act," which went into effect in July, prohibits local governments from requiring public charter schools approved and inspected by officials with the state Department of Education to be forced to obtain any other licenses from local government entities to operate their school.The law does not protect a charter school’s signage, however.In the weeks before classes began this school year, a City of Riverdale code enforcement officer left a violation notice on Utopian’s door warning administrators to take action immediately: “Remove banner until permit is issued and apply for a business license.” Miller said that a member of the Clayton County School board advised him that other county schools in Riverdale are not required to have a sign permit or a business license. “Every time that we have attempted to have some type of signage, we were told that we needed a permit or we were being fined because we are not affiliated with the Board of Education in Clayton County,” he said. [columns] [column half][pullquote left]

Where Is Utopian Academy for the Arts? City Prohibits School From Using Sign[/pullquote][/column] [column half]

“It got really nasty,” Miller said of a recent surprise visit from code enforcement before school began."

Miller said that he has received calls and notes from the city warning that Utopian has accrued fees in the hundreds of dollars for violating city business license and sign codes. “It got really nasty,” Miller said of a recent surprise visit from code enforcement before school began. “The guy came and tossed the [fee list] in the face” of a school supporter.Miller took video footage of the visit that shows a code enforcement officer telling him and a school supporter that an inspection of the school’s signage was necessary because “the Georgia Department of Education does not look for stuff like this on buildings.”For the second year in a row, Miller turned to the State Charter Schools Commission for reinforcement. Miller got a letter explaining to the city that schools authorized by the commission are indeed public schools, not businesses.“Utopian Academy for the Arts is a public charter school authorized by the SCSC- a state level authorizing entity under the authority of the state Board of Education,” wrote Gregg Stevens, general counsel for the commission.“Accordingly, Utopian Academy for the Arts should at all times be treated like a public school with the privileges, rights, and obligations afforded thereto …” Utopian opened in August 2014. It was denied the right to exist by the Clayton County School board in 2011, 2012, and 2013 when the district rejected its charter application. The local denial was over-ruled by the state in October 2013. The state Charter Schools Commission granted Utopian Academy the authority to serve kids for five years as a state charter school. It was the first charter school to win approval from the new commission.[/column] [/columns] State Rep. Valencia Stovall, who supported the opening of Utopian in Clayton and co-sponsored the new law protecting charter schools from harassment, said it was “disheartening” to learn that Utopian is still having trouble with local government.“They should be treated as any other public school opening in the city,” Stovall said. “Instead, they have been hit from both sides from the City of Riverdale and the Clayton County School Board.” Stovall said that in addition to racking up fines from the city, Clayton Schools is exercising its right to charge Utopian much higher rent than the building’s earlier tenant. Utopian pays $3,000 a month to use the building compared to the Riverdale Development Authority, which had a lease allowing it to pay $1 annually for 20 years.School leaders say they refused to be forced out of Riverdale by local leaders who see them as competition. “Being in this fight for so long has been a tedious journey for me not only as a board member, but also a parent,” said Sharon Daniel, who chairs Utopian’s governing board. “We will not give up. We will educate the City of Riverdale.Utopian is a public school. We have a right to be here.” CLICK HERE FOR THIS RELEASE IN A DOWNLOADABLE FORMAT