Schwinn’s former chief of schools sues Tennessee for $1.5 million over firing

Penny Schwinn has been Tennessee’s education chief since February 2019. She and the state education department are part of a lawsuit filed in a Nashville court by one of Schwinn’s former lieutenants, Katie Poulos, who was fired by the commissioner in October 2019. (Courtesy of Daily Memphian)

A former member of Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s executive team is seeking $1.5 million in damages from the Tennessee Department of Education in a lawsuit that says she was fired after being hospitalized and taking a medical leave.

Katie Poulos’ lawsuit also charges that she was dismissed in retaliation for filing a complaint against the agency over Schwinn’s treatment of her following the medical emergency.

Poulos was chief schools officer when she was dismissed on Oct. 29, 2019, about seven weeks after returning from a six-week medical leave. She had been responsible for the state’s school improvement work, the school turnaround initiative known as the Achievement School District, and programs overseeing charter, private, and home schools across Tennessee.

In her lawsuit filed July 31 in Davidson County Chancery Court, Poulos charges that her dismissal violates Tennessee laws related to disabilities, whistleblowers, and rehabilitation. She is seeking a jury trial and a judgment that, in addition to $1.5 million in damages, includes back pay and damages for lost benefits.

Spokeswomen for the education department and the state attorney general’s office declined to comment Friday.

Poulos was part of an exodus of employees during Schwinn’s first nine months on the job. Last fall, Chalkbeat reported that approximately 250 people — almost a fifth of the department — had left their jobs, exceeding the departure rates under Schwinn’s two predecessors over comparable periods. 

But unlike Poulos, most of the departing employees resigned and were not fired or retiring. Schwinn characterized the turnover as normal during a change in leadership and said the attrition has allowed her to shrink a bloated department and build a team committed to initiatives that will benefit all students.

Numerous other employees at all levels of responsibility have since exited the department, including Deputy Commissioner Amity Schuyler, Policy Director Aleah Guthrie, Communications Director Jennifer Johnson, and assistant commissioners Elizabeth Fiveash, Brian Stockton, and Felicia Everson-Tuggle.

Chalkbeat submitted a public records request on Feb. 20 seeking updated employee departure rates but has not received the data. Chief of Staff Chelsea Crawford responded on Feb. 28 that the education department had begun to “pull the data together.” She has not responded to multiple inquiries about the status of the request.

Poulos has a law degree from Vanderbilt University and had been an assistant education secretary in New Mexico when she joined Schwinn’s cabinet as an assistant commissioner in April 2019, two months after Schwinn left the Texas Education Agency to become newly elected Gov. Bill Lee’s education chief. Within a month, the commissioner promoted her to chief schools officer and promised a $14,000 annual salary increase to $144,000 — a raise Poulos said she never received.

Katie Poulos

In a separate complaint filed with the state human resources department and accompanying her lawsuit, Poulos said she fulfilled her duties and received only positive feedback leading up to her hospitalization in August 2019 during a “major depressive disorder episode.” 

After being cleared by a medical specialist to work with some accommodations beginning in September, she returned to her Nashville office to find her security badge disabled and her nameplate removed. She said she was informed by David Donaldson, now chief of human capital, that she would retain her title and salary but had been stripped of her responsibilities. He said she would henceforth work as a “sole contributor” reporting to then-Chief District Officer Eve Carney instead of Schwinn. 

Donaldson also told Poulos that she was the subject of two internal investigations, one alleging discrimination and the other related to her oversight of the Achievement School District. Poulos contends that both investigations were without merit and that the ASD probe was launched in retaliation for her medical condition and to pressure her to resign.

In early October, Poulos filed a complaint with the state alleging discrimination and retaliation based on her disability, according to the lawsuit. Less than a month later, she was notified that her employment had been terminated, with “expiration of executive service” listed as the stated reason.

Poulos also has a discrimination complaint pending with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

She now works as chief operating officer for RePublic Schools, a Nashville-based charter network.

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