Just seven weeks before he leaves office, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s education department is asking a judge to remove the man it appointed two years ago to fix the troubled Chester Upland School District.
In a court filing, state officials charged the district’s receiver, Joe Watkins, failed to stabilize the Chester Upland’s finances or improve its academic performance. It’s asked a Delaware County judge to replace him with former State Education Secretary Francis Barnes.
It’s a little strange, Corbett’s team turning on the guy they picked for job just as they’re packing their bags to leave.
Watkins was a controversial choice when the administration named him receiver of Chester Upland two years ago. He was a long time advocate of charters and school vouchers with significant Republican ties.
Advocates for traditional public schools howled that putting Watkins in charge of a failing district that had already lost more than half its students to charters was putting the fox in charge of the hen house.
But Watkins promised to try to lure charter students back to traditional public schools, and it seems he has — tried, that is. Enrollment in the district has grown, and so has charter enrollment, a bit.
Watkins insists he’s brought stability to the district, hiring a good superintendent and principals, and building a solid teaching staff.
“Enrollment is up, violence is down,” he told me. “Achievement is up. We’re testing better than we ever have. Reading readiness among your youngest kids is up by over 90 percent.” Watkins provided this summary of his accomplishments.
Read the state’s filing to get Watkins out, and you get a different picture. It says Watkins missed deadlines for submitting a financial plan this year, then suddenly in October asked for a $12.3 million loan. State officials declined a taped interview, but asserted in their court filing the district ranks at the bottom the state academically.
Watkins said he’s proud of the progress among reading proficiency among younger students, and argued that it’s too soon to expect a complete turnaround.
“It takes time for the scores to change dramatically,” he said. “At least we’ve got the school district heading in the right direction right now.”
One factor in the administration’s rush to book Watkins may be the controversy over his plan for a partnership with the Shenzhen Yaohua School school in China. The state says it learned about it through a press release.
Watkins said the Chinese were prepared to do a lot to help the district.
“They would have put money into the school district by upgrading some of our buildings, and that would have saved us millions of dollars,” Watkins said. “They were also talking about making a significant investment in the district and in the city of Chester which would have meant new jobs for people.”
Watkins was planning to travel to China to work out details, but the state filing says it would be improper for him to spend public funds on such a trip, and also improper for a third party, such as the Chinese school, to pay for it if they stood to benefit from the arrangement.
Watkins said he won’t be travelling to China now, because he’ll be here defending his job, which pays $144,000 a year. He said the Chinese educators’ interest in the arrangement will likely be affected by the controversy.
Delaware County Common Pleas President Judge Chad Kenney will hear arguments on the state’s petition to remove Watkins Thursday.