Gov. Bill Lee reasserts support of education commissioner Penny Schwinn: ‘I am pleased’ with her work

Penny Schwinn visits with students at a school in Rutherford County in February, soon after becoming education commissioner in Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of Tennessee Department of Education)
Despite growing discontent among some Tennessee lawmakers about the leadership at the education department, Gov. Bill Lee made it clear Thursday that he stands behind Commissioner Penny Schwinn. In this photo, She visits with students in February 2019 shortly after becoming the state’s education chief.

Brushing aside a growing chorus of doubt and discontent with the leadership of Tennessee’s education commissioner, Gov. Bill Lee maintained his support Thursday of Penny Schwinn.

In an hourlong press conference that was meant to highlight the work of a statewide team on policing reforms, Lee was twice asked to address the no-confidence in Schwinn among some of his own party’s lawmakers. At least one Republican legislator has suggested holding a no-confidence vote on the education chief.

But Lee dismissed those concerns saying he was “very pleased” with the commissioner’s work, especially in such trying times.

“Opening schools in the midst of a pandemic is one of the greatest challenges that any state has faced.” Lee said. “Our state has been one of the first to do it and we’ve done it effectively.

“I’m very pleased with where we are in opening up our schools and that’s the No. 1 job right now of that commissioner and of that department.”

When asked if she would also like to address complaints about her leadership, Schwinn did not respond, instead allowing Lee to do so.

Related: Employee turnover, discontent high in Tennessee’s education department under Penny Schwinn

This is not the first time that lawmakers have criticized Schwinn for not seeking legislative input before launching initiatives. 

Last month when Schwinn announced a statewide plan to conduct well-being checks on children at home during the pandemic, legislators thought that amounted to government overreach and another example of her not working with lawmakers. Days later, the commissioner apologized for “missing the mark” in her desire to support at-risk children and was forced to abandon the plan. 

Related: Schwinn on the hot seat over Tennessee’s handling of textbooks and contracts

Addressing student mental health needs has been a cornerstone in Schwinn’s plan to address the “whole child,” including expanding wellness and social services to at-risk children since Lee hired her in January 2019. 

Lee said Schwinn has done an admirable job ensuring that student academic needs are being met along with providing mental health and nutrition services, and other resources that are often performed in schools.

“Our commissioner of education is solely committed to that and the work of that department is one that I’m very pleased with so far,” he said.

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