Controversial choice to turn Chester Upland schools around

The man chosen to fix the Chester Upland School District’s troubled finances is proving to be controversial from the start.

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis picked Joe Watkins as chief recovery officer for the troubled school system. Watkins is a Philadelphia minister and former investment manager who heads a political action committee that advocates for school choice initiatives such as vouchers and charter schools.

State Sen. Daylin Leach, who sits on the education committee, said Watkins is an ideologue who is ill-suited to rebuilding a strong public school system.

“It would have been hard to come up with a nominee who is more publicly associated with the effort to undermine public education,” said Leach, D-Montgomery.

Watkins said he’s a product of public schools and is determined to improve them.

In a brief phone interview he declined to respond to his critics or address specific policy issues, such as whether he would want more charter schools, which already educate roughly half of Chester’s 3,400 students.

“I’m new to this situation, so I’m anxious to talk with the folks there and assess the situation first hand,” Watkins said. “I think we’ll be able to make an assessment together as to where we need to go and how we should move forward.”

Some on the Chester Upland school board have condemned the choice of Watkins, appointed by the administration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. The district’s current deputy superintendent, Thomas Persing, said he’s keeping an open mind.

“The ball’s in our court,” Persing said. “I think we’ve got to show him how well we can do, and the improvements that have been made and the improvements we hope to be making in the near future.”

Under a recently enacted Pennsylvania law, if Watkins and the board can’t agree on a recovery plan, a state receiver will be named to run the district.

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