MUST WE CONTINUE TO LIVE NEXT DOOR TO “THAT” HOUSE?

“A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”
Nelson Mandela

“I’ve always been serious that way, trying to evolve to a more conscious state. The funny thing about that, though. You tweak yourself, looking for more love, less lust, more compassion, less jealousy. You keep tweaking, keep adjusting those knobs until you can no longer find the original settings. In some sense, the original settings are exactly what I’m looking for a return to the easygoing guy I was before my world got complicated, the nice guy who took things as they came and laughed so hard the blues would blow away in the summer wind.”
Bill Withers

We’ve all lived next door to, or around the corner from, “THAT” house. You know the one. The house that is always throwing some kind of blowout, no matter what day of the week or time of the day.

They keep you up on a Tuesday night past midnight with a BBQ that never seems to end. As you try to block them out and fall asleep, you can’t help but wonder, “Don’t they have to go to work tomorrow?”; “Don’t they know other people have to be up early in the AM?”;  “Have they no consideration?”

Sunday you come home from church, only to find the street jammed up with cars and loud music blasting from the back patio. You find a parking spot three blocks away and as you walk back, you think, “When do these people work?”; “How can they afford this constant partying?”; “Will this ever end?”

You try talking to them. Hinting that others have to be at work early. Suggest that perhaps they could turn it down a little. Remind them that this isn’t that kind of neighborhood, here is a place where people work together and try to be conscientious towards each other. None of it works.

The blowouts continue. Despite the visits from the police and the letters from the HOA, nothing changes. When you run into fellow neighbors you joke that the residents of “THAT” house must have dirty pictures of someone, since nothing seems to reign them in. You shake your heads, return to your house, and try to cope as best you can. But an overwhelming sense of frustration permeates the air.

Since the arrival of Penny Schwinn from Texas, under her leadership, the Tennessee Department of Education has become “THAT” house. Be it entering into no-bid contracts by using money not designated for them, tax-payer paid trips to Minnesota solely to avoid an unwanted meeting with a Washington official, tampering with the text-book adoption process, holding RFP meetings with vendors prior to bill adoption, or triggering a mass exit of staff – nothing seems to trigger any reaction other than the raising of eyebrows and an increase in chatter around the water cooler. The rules don’t seem to apply to residents of “THAT” house.

Talk to any legislator, lobbyist, or informed citizen about the state of the TNDOE and all will tell you they are deeply concerned. Yet nobody takes action. In private they’ll ask each other, “What the hell is going on over there, but in public, they pretend all is as it should be.

Leadership has devolved into a revolving door. People who have worked nearly a decade for the department and were deeply committed to the work, no matter who was in the commissioner seat, are suddenly rushing towards the exit. In their place is young Teach For America alumni with little or no actual experience in the classroom. All seeped in an arrogance that belies their years or level of competence.

Now comes the latest headline – Katie Houghtlin, who led the TNDOE priority to protect Tennessee’s children’s Mental Health, ruled her staff like a playground bully. Reports are that she often addressed staff with a raised voice, frequently treating them in a belittling manner. It wasn’t uncommon to find direct reports at their desk in tears after a meeting with Houghtlin. Charges substantiated by the recently completed HR investigation.

Allegedly, in a Whole Child staff meeting this past November she told the team that there was a sign-up sheet by her desk for empathy. If they felt like they needed some empathy for anything work-related, they could sign up.  Needless to say, nobody added their name to the list.

The egregious behavior by Haughtlin can not be understated. At the very least it detracts from the strong work the division delivered prior to her arrival.

There may be a lack of clarity by some in relation to coordinated school health. Simply put, it is ensuring that policies are implemented that allow kids to remain healthy – mentally and physically – in order that they can continue to learn. Towards that goal, Tennessee was one of 16 states awarded the prestigious 1801 grant by the CDC to help move their work forward. Houghtlin in June took over a division that was clearly among the nation’s  leaders in recognizing the need to address children’s mental and physical conditions as they relate to learning.

Instead of building on the success of the team, she worked to dismantle it by making conditions unbearable. In this endeavor she was successful. Pat Connor – over civics, character education, and family resources long with Sara Smith who wrote the AWARE grant and oversaw it, took early retirement.

Yvette Carter, over guidance. Karen Jenson, mental health. Paula Chilton, from the CSH team. All have left, yet to be replaced. Remaining staff members continue to rally and try to adapt, but are often thwarted by the ever-shifting sands. The importance of stability for children is widely recognized, yet the division charged with facilitating student stability is infected with instability.

Publicly Commissioner Schwinn often extolls the virtues of whole-child education. In a recent online interview with the Hunt Institute Schwinn vowed, “Safety, health, and mental health will be first when schools reopen.” Apparently, that pledge doesn’t extend to the TNDOE offices. Publicly, Schwinn may pledge fidelity to the importance of whole-child education, but her official actions don’t serve to reinforce that commitment.

Houghtlin’s well-documented transgressions resulted in the equivalent of a slap on the wrist and probably earned more punishment for those she previously supervised then it did for her. Per ChalkbeatTN,

Chelsea Crawford, the education department’s communications chief, said Houghtlin’s annual salary was cut from $140,004 to $135,000 and that she is now managing development of Tennessee’s COVID-19 Child Wellbeing Task Force and related online resources. She will be given “other projects as assigned.” 

I’ve yet to see who is on this mythical COVID-19 Child Wellbeing Taskforce, as there has been no further information offered since Governor Lee appointed Schwinn its head. Furthermore, let’s do a little math in relationship to that payroll reduction. It’s not really a reduction if you are still making more money this year than last year.

Back in December, David Donaldson, as head of HR, announced the annual Pay for Performance (P4P) bonuses to be rewarded to state employees, based on their achievements and quality of service to Tennesseans over the past year. Apparently, performance bonuses based on specific and measurable work outcomes have been paid to state employees since the passage of the Tennessee Compensation Enhancement Act of 2015. Most all of the state’s 38,000 executive branch employees having at least twelve (12) consecutive months of service are eligible for the rewards. Well, other than teachers, but I digress.

Unfortunately, the 12-month stipulation left Haughtlin out in the cold since she hadn’t arrived at the department until June of 2019. Never ones to let a regulation stand in the way of their desires, Schwinn and Donaldson found a way around that – they promoted Haughtlin from Assistant Commissioner to Chief.

When she got to Tennessee in June, Katie Houghtlin was making $10,621 per month. Thanks to the raise, starting in February she’d receive $11,667. Her “punishment” means she’ll only be making – notice I didn’t say earning – $11,250. In other words, she’s still going to receive $7548 more annually in compensation than she did last year, with a fraction of the responsibilities. Can I please be Commissioner Schwinn’s friend?

To mitigate the damage, Schwinn is employing the age-old strategy of trading on other’s reputations and deeper wells of goodwill. In other words, find some locals everybody likes and throw them into the breach. Houghtlin’s responsibilities have been divided among existing staff, whole child has moved to Jean Luna, assistant commissioner of college, career, and technical education; physical health is now under Brian Stockton, assistant commissioner of district operations; and special populations is being managed by Eve Carney, chief districts and schools officer.

Luna joined the department in October after serving as the director of high schools for the Clarksville-Mongomery School System. She held that position for 2 years after serving 5 years as a principal. A graduate of Lipscomb’s Doctoral program she is well respected and well-liked but has limited experience in child health issues.

Stockton arrived a month before Luna after serving for 4 years as Dorsey Hopson’s Chief of Staff in Shelby County. A native of Memphis, Stockton spent the majority of the decade in Washington D.C. working for corporate entities. Ironically among his duties at his last D.C. stop, Serco, was to manage the development and execution of new strategies in support of key targeted programs to stem attrition and increase engagement. That experience should prove beneficial in his new role. Again, well-liked and respected by most, but with little experience in regard to children’s mental and physical health.

Carney has been employed with the TNDOE since 2014 when she was hired as an executive director. Last April she was promoted to the role of Chief Districts and School Officer. Her professionalism, likeability, intellect, and willingness to accept more responsibility has led to Carney becoming Schwinn’s swiss army knife. With Amity Shyuler’s recent departure to assume a position with Shelby County Schools, the responsibility of both the state’s ESSA program and the creation of the state’s charter school oversight board had already fallen to her. Now she has even more on her plate.

Meanwhile, the staff is left to scramble to adjust to the new structure. Just another transition, in a year filled with transitions, complete with new expectations and processes to learn under their new teams. This comes at a time, amidst a pandemic when the mental and physical state of students are more fragile than ever. None of this speaks to a commitment to “whole child well being” as anything more than a way to garner headlines and self promote. It’s a shame because it sells short the knowledge and commitment of all those 42 staff members who are legitimately looking to do their job and protect kids.

In the wake of all this turmoil at the TNDOE comes an announcement from former Governor Bill Haslam that he is forming a new private program that aims to recruit at least a thousand college students to provide summer tutoring for elementary-age students whose education has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. He plans to invest a million dollars of his and his wife’s own money in the initiative. It’s an interesting proposition that comes with a few…shall I say…questions.

It’s currently the middle of May and most college students have made plans, admittedly some of which have been canceled due to the coronavirus, so where will these college student tutors come from? Once secured how will they be processed and trained by the targeted June start? Since the program is a partnership with the Boy’s and Girl’s club, I assume they’ll aid in the quick identification of students that could benefit from the tutoring efforts, but still scheduling and transportation arrangements will need to be made by June. There’s a likely chance that many of these students will be enrolled in district summer school offerings, so that creates another wrinkle.

Once everybody has been identified, what will tutoring look like? Once again, politicians are working under the assumption that everyone is capable of teaching reading and math. How will the specific needs of children be identified? How will tutors know what level the students are at? Will personal school records be provided to tutors to determine student performance levels? A lot of questions need answering before launching such an initiative.

I don’t mean to sound overly critical – well maybe I do because this initiative resembles most of Haslam’s initiatives, long on style and short on substance – and I am appreciative of his willingness to try and help students, but I think there is more to this week’s announcement then just a desire to help students.

Haslam has long considered himself, the education governor. During his tenure, he pursued a wide range of initiatives and invested a fair amount of money in an effort to improve student outcomes. Watching events unfold at the DOE, and the talent departures, as a result, has to have left him feeling sick to his stomach. Watching Bill Lee fail to adequately address any of what’s transpired has likely worn on his last nerve.

I see the announcement of the Tennessee Tutoring Corps as a means of sending a message to Bill Lee – if you won’t do something, I will.

In that case, I praise Governor Haslam for seizing the initiative and attempting to provide what TNDOE leadership has been unable to – competent leadership.

The coming months will continue to be very interesting and at some point, TNDOE leadership is going to have to pick up their game. I’m already hearing rumblings of legislators and administrators looking to use the COVID-19 crisis as a means to circumvent those pesky regulations that protect kids. IDEA, maintenance of efforts, forced retirements, and lifting class size limits are all ideas being explored. If we are not careful, students, teachers, and families could see the undoing of decades of progress made in education legislation. It’s never a good time to have incompetence at the helm, but in times of crisis, it’s even more dangerous and the ones who will pay the price are those who can least afford the cost.

It’s amazing to me how much these days the TNDOE resembles Shawn Joseph’s tenure as superintendent with MNPS. During that time, as council members and board members continued to turn a deaf ear to Joseph’s abuses and missteps, a resignation set in. A resignation that things would never change and that Joseph would go unchecked for the duration of his contract. I was continually asked, “Why bother? Nothing is going to change. Nobody is listening. Nobody is going to hold him accountable. My only choices are either to leave or accept reality.”

My answer was always the same. “It may take a while. It may be extremely difficult. But change will come. I firmly believe that “right” always eventually wins.”

Joseph didn’t complete his initial contract. I don’t believe Schwinn will either. The only question that remains is who will step up and lead the transition? Who will hold those who fail to adequately serve the teachers, students, and families, of Tennessee accountable? Time will reveal the answer, but I do know this much…we are better than this. It’s way past time to bring “THAT” house into compliance.

That’s it for now, if you’ve got time and are looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy.

If you so desire to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.

 



Categories: Education

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