Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn Has Created ‘a Fairly Abysmal’ Work Environment, Former Employees Allege


Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) Commissioner Penny Schwinn and her leadership skills have created a toxic work environment and driven too many talented state workers away and into the private sector, said three former TDOE employees.

These are the same three sources who criticized Schwinn in an article that The Tennessee Star published Wednesday. Those sources spoke on condition of anonymity. They said the problems within the department started when Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee appointed Schwinn. And the sources also said the difficulties began not despite Schwinn — but because of her.

Schwinn’s staff did not return our request for comment Thursday. Neither did anyone in Lee’s office.

One source said Schwinn created “a fairly abysmal” work environment.

“I think about the constant upheaval she has created in the department, from my perspective as a former employee, and the mental health toll it has taken on people,” the first source said.

“I know several people who went into therapy and then had to quit.”

As reported last year, the TDOE had experienced a 19 percent turnover rate under Schwinn after nine months. Previous commissioners had rates between 9 percent and 14 percent.

The first source cited the case of Katie Poulos who, according to Chalkbeat Tennessee, filed a lawsuit against the department. Poulos reportedly said TDOE officials fired her “for filing a complaint against the agency over Schwinn’s treatment of her” following a serious medical emergency.

The same source also pointed to the case of TDOE official Katie Houghtlin, who, Chalkbeat Tennessee reported, “verbally abused employees under her supervision.”

“Schwinn hired Houghtlin to build and manage a major initiative aimed at making students feel healthy, safe, engaged, and supported,” the website reported.

“The initiative included mental and physical health and citizenship and civics education as Gov. Bill Lee proposed an unprecedented $250 million trust fund to support the social and emotional needs of Tennessee’s 1 million public school students.”

Deep from the Heart of Texas

Schwinn brought Houghtlin with her from Texas, Chalkbeat Tennessee reported.

Before she arrived in Tennessee, Schwinn, according to her LinkedIn page, was the Texas Education Agency’s chief deputy commissioner between 2016 to 2019.

And, according to The Star’s first source, Houghtlin was only one of many former colleagues Schwinn imported from the Lone Star State, an act that the source described as nepotism.

“These were people who maybe had no experience in the content areas they were being brought in for. And they were bringing in people at $150,000 [salary], which most higher deputy commissioners were maybe making if they had a lot of experience. And, on the other hand, she was telling our other teams to downsize and that we had too much waste on our teams and not enough money in the budget to hire good people,” the first source said.

“In the time I worked there I went from having four employees under [former commissioner] Candice McQueen to one employee by the time I quit. Which meant I absorbed their responsibilities and got no pay change for any of that. That was the decision they wanted made. Cutting as many people as possible and, when people left, not filling them.”

Also from Texas, Schwinn brought in Mike Hardy as her chief of strategy and data, Robert Lundin as an assistant commissioner, and Rebecca Shah as her chief of staff. The Chattanoogan reported in May that Shah moved back to Texas.


A second anonymous source said Schwinn will not collaborate with her subordinates and that “it’s her way or the highway.”

“Not only is there a high turnover between the people who came before her and the people after her, there is a ridiculously high turnover rate with people she hires,” the second source said.

“Even those people can’t work for her.”

A third source, meanwhile, said “so many talented people have left, and, after Schwinn leaves, it will be hard to get them back.”

“I have no personal grudge against Penny Schwinn. Since I left, my work/life balance is better, and I make more money. I should be thanking Schwinn on a personal level, but this situation still makes me sick to my stomach. Part of the problem is I have so many friends still there. And I have to see what they have gone through — and the mistreatment of them,” the third source said.

“Just put your head down and pray that she is gone soon.”

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Chris Butler is an investigative journalist at The Tennessee Star. Follow Chris on Facebook. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Penny Schwinn” by Tennessee Department of Education.









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5 Thoughts to “Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn Has Created ‘a Fairly Abysmal’ Work Environment, Former Employees Allege”

  1. Samuel T. Foust

    She lost me at “Cal Berkeley.” They specialize in the Karl Marx Chaos Doctrine for economic and societal destruction. I won’t be voting for Lee in his reelection – as a result of this train wreck – and the “refugee” train wreck. I would never vote for a D – but it doesn’t mean I have to vote for Lee. Some Republicans never learn and they dance with the devil. Looks like that is what happened here. And our kids are paying the price. It’s no longer education. It’s indoctrination. The “Berkeley” factor should have tole Lee everything he needed to know.

  2. Karen Bracken

    Schwinn has caused chaos in every job she has had and she has had many short term jobs and there is good reason for her rapid turn over of jobs. Funny that I and others knew of her troubles even before Lee hired her but our Governor chose to ignore her past issues. Her time in TX was wrought with controversy and a lawsuit that will cost TX taxpayers $250,000 due to the firing of a whistleblower that exposed Schwinn and questionable contracts. And there is the subsequent TBI investigation that found proper procedures in awarding a contract was not followed. Lee once again has proven he is not competent as Governor and for whatever reason hired someone for one of the most important positions in our state either because he was told to do so or failed to do proper due diligence. Either way Texas is sure glad they got Schwinn out of their state.

  3. John

    My last boss was a liberal cut from the same cloth as this woman. He created an extremely toxic work environment, which also lead to a high turnover rate.

    Bill Lee is a disaster. I’m proud to say I did not vote for him in the primary. Every single time I’d hear him mutter the words, “I’m a conservative.” in his campaign commercial, I knew he was another faker. He had that fake conviction tone in his voice. Much like a televangelist.

    Boycott Lee Company. Hire any other company for your electrical, plumbing, etc needs.

  4. Julie

    What is described here could actually happen at any organization and I know of a similar situation at my place of business. The real question is Schwinn making good decisions in her role and based on the “every child gets a visit” and avoiding DeVos with an illness scheme you could say no. Gov. Lee is standing by her per Fox17 and likely represents another bad decision (like keeping his wife’s refugee pet project that we have to pay for) by Gov. Lee. I believe when he runs again this stuff will haunt him.

  5. rick

    Schwinn is bad, I have been associated with education all of my work life and I have heard from educators everything that is reported here. How she got the job needs to be found out but, she needs to go. Quit talking and take action Lee, with every delay you are digging yourself deeper into a hole that one day you will not be able to get out of. She was a terrible choice for Tennessee.