Chester Upland, which ran out of money and almost closed earlier this year, was declared a distressed district on Tuesday.
Watkins, 58, as chief recovery officer for the 3,400-student system, will have broad powers under recently passed legislation to craft a recovery plan that could convert schools to charters or hand them over to education management organizations, call for renegotiating the teachers' contract, close schools, and cancel contracts with vendors.
Asked to comment on Watkins' appointment, acting Superintendent Thomas Persing said, "I just hope he will be fair, that he will not come here with a bias toward Chester Upland. If he is fair, there will not be a problem."
School board member Charlie Warren reacted with dismay. "This is quite shocking to me," he said. "I was hoping it was someone who would be open-minded and objective. Now, I'm not sure. It may be that this is someone who has come to do a job on us rather than working with us."
He added, "I will wait to say more until I meet with him to hear what he has to say."
The school board will have input, but little or no power to revise the plan Watkins comes up with.
Within the next two weeks, it must vote on whether it will cooperate with him in implementing his recommendations. If the board says it will not, Tomalis is required by state law to go to court to ask for the appointment of a receiver, who would have all of the powers of the elected board.
If the board accepts Watkins' appointment but rejects his recovery plan, Tomalis would also have to go to court and seek the appointment of a receiver to implement the plan.
Watkins, chairman of Students First, a political action committee affiliated with the conservative American Federation for Children, is a longtime vocal supporter of vouchers and charters. In recent years, his PAC has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to pro-voucher state legislators.
In a statement on the group's website, Watkins said that "for too many students, the educational system is broken with no hope for repair. We need to try new ideas and new solutions before another generation is lost to failing schools."
Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), a member of the Senate Education Committee, said Friday that Watkins' pro-voucher stand made him a poor choice.
"I am concerned that in his testimony before the Education Committee and in his activities on behalf of vouchers, that he has shown a lack of enthusiasm for public schools," Leach said. "To put him in charge of revamping public schools raises the disturbing possibility in my mind that he will turn the whole thing over to a for-profit charter school rather than ensure a traditional public school is there to serve the community."
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and of the Princeton Theological Seminary, Watkins worked for Republican Sen. Dan Quayle in Indiana and later served as associate director of public liaison under President George H.W. Bush. He later founded a financial management company and is now pastor of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Philadelphia.
Asked to comment on Watkins' qualifications for the job, Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said in an e-mail: "We'll let the release stand as is."
Contact Dan Hardy at 601-313-8134, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @DanInq.
Inquirer staff writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.