Midday Must Reads: Vouchers Advocate to Lead Chester Upland's Recovery and Mortgage Assistance Reborn

There is some dismay in the Chester Upland School District about the state's appointment of Joe Watkins, who heads a political action committee that supports school vouchers, to lead the school district's financial recovery process.

Chester Upland, which ran out of money and almost closed earlier this year, was declared a distressed district on Tuesday [August 14].

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.

Now for some good news. Pennsylvania will once again provide mortgage assistance to help struggling Pennsylvanians keep their homes. The Homeowners' Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program had essentially shut down after last year's budget drastically cut funding for the program.

The Homeowners' Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program is once again taking calls from beleaguered homeowners across the commonwealth. The program offers loans to those who have fallen behind on their monthly mortgage payments, bringing their balance current and subsidizing payments for up to three years.

To qualify, homeowners must be living in the property as their primary residence, have suffered a financial hardship that was not their fault, and have a reasonable prospect of being able to resume payments.

About 45,000 households have received help since the program's inception three decades ago. ... But new loans from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, which runs the program, were halted after last year's state budget reduced funding to $2 million.

But a $25 billion multistate settlement with the nation's five largest mortgage loan servicers now means that $66.5 million will be coming to Pennsylvania.

A measure the state Legislature approved in June outlines spending 90 percent of the funds, or about $60 million, on the HEMAP program over the next three to five years.

The remainder will be used for housing-related consumer protection programs through the state attorney general's office and for consumer legal assistance on housing matters.

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