Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s husband works for the company that benefited from an $8.06 million reading initiative contract.
Apparently, Commissioner Schwinn keeps it all in the family. As The Tennessee Star reported last fall, sources claimed that Schwinn imported former colleagues from Texas when she assumed her role within TDOE. They also claimed that they were subjected to hiring freezes and pressure to slash budgets, though Schwinn had no problem with maintaining the six-figure salaries for her imports.
These sources offered further context for a lawsuit that Schwinn faces currently.
Following a flurry of hirings and resignations that totaled to 9 months of a rapid turnover rate within TDOE, Schwinn was sued by a previous employee, Katie Poulous, for wrongful termination. Poulous alleged that Schwinn discriminated against her for a disability and retaliated against her following a medical emergency.
That’s not the only lawsuit Schwinn has faced during her brief tenure with the TDOE.
As The Star reported, a textbook company alleged in a 2019 lawsuit that Schwinn issued her own appointment to head the Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission midway through their process of selecting approved textbooks, thereby disrupting and swaying selections to Schwinn’s liking.
Although the lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice, it spurred legislators to bring Schwinn before the Senate Education Committee five times last March. The General Assembly also stripped Schwinn of her voting powers on that commission.
In the wake of these lawsuits and anonymous allegations, Republican legislators petitioned for a vote of no confidence against Schwinn.
However, lawmakers ultimately determined that keeping Schwinn would be better for the state amidst pandemic recovery efforts in education.
State Representative Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) committed to following through with the effort for a vote of no confidence, submitting a formal resolution to do so earlier this year.
“You do have an argument that if kids are falling behind, and you have reduced staff at the [TDOE], whose job is it to make sure that they don’t fall behind?” stated Griffey. “You’re not helping the problem. You’re probably exacerbating the problem.”
However, the resolution was withdrawn in February – just days after Governor Bill Lee gave his State of the State Address. Lee has been one of Schwinn’s biggest supporters since he first appointed her. He even backed her controversial Child Well-Being Check Toolkit last year during the pandemic, condemned roundly as a big brother-style government overreach.
Griffey told The Star in an interview that he wasn’t at all surprised by this news about the contract details. He explained that, even if everything was clean and square with this contract, the optics of the situation aren’t good.
“From a political perspective, it just looks awful,” stated Griffey. “It causes Tennesseans to question how state tax dollars are spent. We ought to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”
State Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville) told The Star in an emailed statement that he is investigating the TDOE contract.
“This contract appears to be conflict of interest,” stated Bell. “I am looking into this matter further to determine Paul Schwinn’s role with the company, how the contract was procured and whether it uses federal or state money.”
Other contracts penned by Schwinn’s hand have raised eyebrows. The controversy surrounding the legislature’s passage of the education savings account (ESA) – or, school voucher program – didn’t deter her from awarding a no-bid contract. According to Griffey, Schwinn bypassed the legislature and a competitive bid process in order to award a $2.5 million contract to a company for financial management of the ESA program.
The Star is awaiting fulfillment of an open records request with TDOE concerning the contract.
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