Pennsylvania Taps First School Recovery Chief in Chester

Pennsylvania named the first chief recovery officer to take charge of a school district under a law passed in June, putting former White House aide Joe Watkins in charge of the Chester-Upland system.

Watkins, now a Lutheran pastor in Philadelphia, will devise a fiscal plan for the 6,800-student district, which may include converting some institutions to charter schools. He was named to the post today by Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis.

Chester, with a $101 million budget for fiscal 2013, avoided shutting down this year after a federal court forced the state to chip in an additional $3.2 million in aid, according to Moody’s Investors Service. Under the June law, the state can put a recovery officer in charge of distressed schools. If district leaders reject Watkins’s plan, a receiver could be named. The measure also makes charter conversions easier.

“Joe is a qualified individual who has the ability to assist the Chester-Upland School District with long-term financial stability,” Tomalis said in a statement. “I am confident that Joe will provide the district with the guidance and leadership it needs.”

A recovery officer has worked for the reform commission that oversees Philadelphia’s schools, the eighth-largest system in the U.S., under a previous law.

Chester’s fiscal difficulties stemmed mainly from state-aid cuts and rising pension and special-education costs, Moody’s said this month in a report. It also cited declining revenue from property taxes.

Watkins, who has worked in asset-management and academia, was a public-liaison aide to President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, and previously served in the U.S. Senate on the staff of former Vice President Dan Quayle, the Indiana Republican, according to the statement from Tomalis.