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.

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