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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