Parents ask members of the Riverdale Fire Department about Monday’s evacuation of Utopian Academy for the Arts. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)
RIVERDALE — Law enforcement flanked the Utopian Academy campus Monday morning as members of the Riverdale Fire Department made entrance into the building.
There was no smoke, one student put it as he made his way into the school gymnasium. There was a safety issue, however.
Riverdale Fire Marshal Demetries Wells ordered the building be evacuated as a safety precaution for students attending Utopian Academy for the Arts Charter School.
“It’s not personal,” said Wells. “It’s simply for the safety of the kids.”
Wells said the charter school has yet to complete a proper inspection. He noted that, late last month, the facility’s alarm system was not up to standard.
“The alarm system failed,” he said. “All the systems work in conjunction with one another. The alarm system is connected to the sprinkler system.”
Wells said records indicate the system was operational 12 months ago when the building was occupied by Scholars Academy Charter School. But since, the system has failed.
Wells said officials at Utopian Academy told him they made repairs on the system over the week. But his office was not able to conduct re-inspections before administrators had students occupy the facilities.
The inspection itself can be done within a day, said Wells, adding that other planning and zoning requirements might be necessary for the school. He said a lawsuit filed against the city may further complicate the matter.
Parents arrived in droves Monday, just two hours after dropping their children off for the first day of school — some taking off from work for a second time in two weeks to do it.
“There won’t be another day like this,” said Principal Fred Birkett, who described them as faithful, determined parents.
Birkett said he is hoping to retain the confidence of families who have stood by the school these past two weeks.
Utopian Academy’s Aug. 4 opening was delayed because of confusion as to who was authorized to sublet the old Riverdale Elementary annex on Camp Street.
Clayton County Board of Education leases the building to the city’s Downtown Development Authority, who in turn are legally-authorized to sublease the space.
However, there was confusion over whether the lease was properly transferred from the Downtown Development Authority to the nonprofit Southern Crescent Centre for Innovation with whom charter school officials said they signed their lease.
Officials said addressing that issue is the first obstacle to getting the Certificate of Inspection, necessary to occupy the building with children.
Utopian Academy Founder Artesius Miller spent Monday morning with legal counsel in Clayton County Superior Court in Jonesboro addressing the issue in hopes the charter school could find a resolution that would allow it to open.
Birkett, meanwhile, was at the school asking parents a second time to be faithful as they picked up their students.
“I think parents are confident about us starting school,” he said. “We wish the parents could just hang in there. Don’t give up. I thank them for their support.”
Birkett said the school hoped to have 300 students enrolled by the October full-time enrollment deadline.
Officials said some 290 students were pre-registered by July. But about 200 were turned away Aug. 4.
The school reported 118 students attended class Monday, before again being asked to leave.
Riverdale resident Ryan Beasley expected to be headed to work by midday Monday. But before he could get to his car, he got a call from staff at Utopian Academy asking him to get his two kids.
Beasley said he decided then to take off work for a second time this month, but this time to enroll his children back into Clayton County Public Schools.
“They’re going to miss too much school,” he said. “It’s a shame. We agree with what they’re offering here. It’s what’s happening now that’s the problem.”
He admonished all sides of the controversy, pointing out that officials should have known better how to resolve any issues before they grew into problems for families.
“Everybody’s got a part in it,” said Beasley.
Beasley lost two days of work and his children missed at least three days of school. He and his wife also spent about $100 to purchase charter school uniforms, believing they finally had an alternative education that was affordable for their family.
“I’m grateful I work from home,” said Tina Mackie of Jonesboro. “I just think it’s unfair for the kids, and all over politics.”