Pennsylvania's top education official asked a court Monday to remove Chester Upland School District receiver Joe Watkins, saying he had failed to implement a recovery plan aimed at digging the struggling district out of debt and improving its academic performance.

Acting Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq asked Delaware County Court to replace Watkins with Francis V. Barnes, a former state secretary of education. It would be the first time a state receiver has been replaced under the current law, said Education Department spokesman Tim Eller.

Watkins said Monday that he felt "really good about what's happening in the district," citing less violence, higher test scores, and improved enrollment during his tenure. He said he was confident the court would do what was best for Chester Upland students.

The move is yet another turn in the Corbett administration's attempts to spur a turnaround in the district.

Watkins, a Philadelphia Republican, a proponent of school choice, and a one-time candidate for lieutenant governor, was Gov. Corbett's pick two years ago to oversee the Chester-area school system, which the state said was in financial disarray and lacked the ability to address the crisis.

He is paid $144,000 a year.

In a statement, Dumaresq said Watkins had failed to implement or amend the financial-recovery plan and had taken no serious action toward improving academics at schools that have been among the lowest-performing in the state.

She also said Chester Upland was facing a budget deficit of more than $20 million this year with no plan for closing the gap.

A few weeks ago, Watkins announced a proposal to partner with a Chinese educator and businessman to build new schools in Chester and funnel a small fortune - up to $1 billion - into the district and community. (State education officials called Watkins' plan to travel to China to work on the deal an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.)

With a new superintendent, Watkins has pushed to expand academic programs, reduce fighting in the high school, increase enrollment, and trim staff and expenses. The cornerstone of their efforts has been enticing students to leave charter schools with promises of a "new" Chester Upland. School officials say the district will never be out of debt as long as it has to pay charter-school fees.

Less than half of Chester students, about 3,500, attend traditional schools, with the rest at charters. Of the district's $118 million budget for next year, $54 million goes toward paying charter-school fees.

Watkins has suggested partnering with charters and sharing expenses so that district fees could be lowered.

As for the China deal, Watkins said his trip was postponed until "I see what the court wants me to do."

The law requires the court to hold a hearing within seven days of the petition's filing and issue an order approving or denying a new receiver within 10 days of the hearing. Barnes, the administration's recommended replacement, is a former superintendent in Bucks County and was the state's first African American education secretary.

Barnes resigned that post in 1995 after then-Gov. Ed Rendell floated a plan to funnel slot-machine revenue to participating school districts.

School board members had mixed reactions to the legal action.

President Bettie McClairen said in a letter that she and others on the board had "grave concerns" about Watkins' using district money for the trip to China, and questioned why he recently approved an expansion of two charter schools when the district has been competing with them for students.

"I think transparency has been a problem," she said Monday.

Another board member, Anthony Johnson, said Watkins was the only one trying to help the district.

"The secretary of education hasn't been helping us. The governor hasn't been helping us. ... If [Dumaresq] gives us charter-school reimbursements, we'll be out of debt," he said.

"They can't blame anybody but themselves."

610-313-8232 @kathyboccella