Chester Upland board votes to work with school choice leader

Joe Watkins will guide the Chester Upland district.
Joe Watkins will guide the Chester Upland district.
Posted: August 26, 2012

The Chester Upland school board voted unanimously Thursday night to work with state-appointed Chief Recovery Officer Joe Watkins in crafting a recovery plan for the financially distressed Delaware County district.

Watkins was selected as chief recovery officer this month by Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ron Tomalis under new legislation that gives Watkins broad power to recommend closing schools, renegotiating the teachers' contract, making budget cuts, privatizing school management, and turning schools into charters.

Under state law, the board was required to vote on whether it would cooperate with Watkins in devising the proposal. If it had voted no, the law mandates that Tomalis would seek the appointment of a receiver who would help Watkins carry out the plan.

Watkins, 59, is the former president of Students First, a political action committee that contributed millions to candidates who supported voucher programs and charter schools. His appointment raised concerns that he will bring a school-choice agenda to the job. Watkins said in an interview that he had no preconceived plan and would act in the best interests of the district's children.

The 4,500-student Chester Upland district almost ran out of money this year, weighed down by previous debts, cuts in state funding, and payments to a charter school that educates about half of its children.

Watkins has 30 days from his Aug. 17 appointment to present a plan for school board approval. The board has 10 days after the plan is presented to decide if it will go along with the recommendations.

If the board does not agree with the proposal, state law mandates that Tomalis would go to court seeking to put Chester Upland into receivership, to make sure the plan gets carried out.

Before the meeting, school board member Bettie McClairen said that the board had already met with Watkins. "He sounds very positive and willing to work with us," she said. "He said he is here to help. We'll see if he's a man of his word."

Tim Eller, a spokesman for Tomalis, said: "We're pleased. . . . We look forward to the board and the chief recovery officer being actively engaged in getting the district back on a sound financial footing."


Contact Dan Hardy at 601-313-8134 or dhardy@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @DanInq.

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