Three former high-level Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) officials who left the department voluntarily criticized their former boss, Commissioner Penny Schwinn, in exclusive interviews with The Tennessee Star.
The former officials spoke with The Star on the condition of anonymity.
Their criticisms of Schwinn are withering, and include the following allegations:
- Schwinn mocked and ridiculed Gov. Bill Lee, her boss, at a staff meeting last year.
- Schwinn gave government records to a reporter that she knew contained false information.
- Schwinn lied to Lee to avoid appearing in public with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
The Tennessee Star contacted Lee’s public information officers for comment about this story last Wednesday and hoped they would answer. By Tuesday of this week, no one in that office would respond. We also contacted Schwinn’s public information officers on the same day last week. They too chose not to speak with us.
Two of the three sources said they witnessed Schwinn disparage Lee at a staff meeting last year. TDOE assistant commissioners and other higher-ups attended that meeting, the first source said.
“It was a Friday. The day before Schwinn had been at the [state] capitol for the governor’s cabinet meeting. She started the meeting by mocking the governor. She said ‘I was at the cabinet meeting yesterday, and the governor really wants you to know that he is a conservative outsider businessman.’ She just started laughing. And she repeated that phrase. She rolled her eyes. That was pretty indicative of her behavior, mocking him for being a conservative and that he didn’t know what he was doing,” the first source said.
The second source said Schwinn gave off “an elitist attitude.”
“It felt like she had the attitude that she was saving us from ourselves, and everywhere else she had been was better,” the second source said.
Schwinn approached the first source after that meeting, the source said.
Schwinn, according to the first source, said Lee had requested Schwinn to appear in public alongside DeVos — but Schwinn would have none of it.
Schwinn told the source that she considered asking her mother to fake an illness. Schwinn even considered asking her mother to visit the emergency room to make the lie seem authentic. Schwinn, according to the plan, would go to the emergency room with her. Schwinn also considered lying to Lee and telling him that one of her children was sick, according to the first source’s account of the conversation.
Ultimately, the first source went on to say, Schwinn said she had to go to Minneapolis to meet with a testing vendor — although the source said Schwinn never actually left Nashville.
“For her to call her mother and ask her to fake a health incident? Something has to be wrong in her brain to think that was appropriate to share with me. She had only been there a month and a half,” the first source said.
“I wasn’t her friend or her confidante. I was her employee. That’s inappropriate. And the plan was elaborate.”
A third source, meanwhile, said that TDOE officials, on Schwinn’s orders, gave falsified records to a reporter who had submitted an open records request to the TDOE.
“The media is doing the work of the public to gather facts, and the fact that she creates a smokescreen at every angle is terrifying,” the third source told The Tennessee Star.
“You just don’t lie to the public. You can dress some things up, but to outright lie is terrifying. And that is who is running our schools? Someone who cannot tell the truth.”
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