“In chess everyone had a pattern, a tendency. Average human players were invariably predictable. They had grooves in their brains, like furrows in a plowed field out in Beulah County. And the trick to being a great chess player, the masters said, was to be unpredictable. To get out of your groove.”
I was working on Wednesday’s piece when the phone rang. Picking it up and looking at the screen showed a call from an unidentified caller with a 615 area code. Inexplicably, I answered,
“I’m looking for Thomas Weber”, came the male voice from the phone.
“This is he.”
“Good morning, I’m with the state office of Homeland Security and I’m wondering if you would have some time to meet with me tomorrow?”
“Have I done something wrong? Do I need to get a lawyer?” I asked slightly unnerved.
“No, the commissioner of education Penny Schwinn has received some threats and your name was given as someone to talk with. This is just part of my investigation and you are under no obligation to talk with me.”
After a brief exchange, it was agreed upon that he would come by the house the next day.
On Thursday morning I was visited by a genial agent, and after a brief conversation, he left, with me having no more understanding of the purpose of his visit than before he arrived.
In the course of our conversation, he asked me one time if I’d ever threatened the commissioner. He also freely admitted to having scanned my social media accounts and blog posts, finding nothing remotely threatening. Never once did he ask me if I had any idea on who might be interested in threatening the commissioner or if I had heard of anyone interested in causing her or her family harm.
If the agent had thought to ask, I would have been hard-pressed to offer any leads. The commissioner serves in a fairly anonymous position. One that few people understand exactly what her role entails.. She’s supposedly a Republican in a state where Republicans hold a super-majority.
Of all the ex-employees that I have talked to over the last two years, none have expressed any personal animosity towards Ms.Schwinn. Those that do feel particularly wronged, have taken their case to the courts.
While it’s popular right now to blame parent groups for unhinged behavior, in all my recent conversations with representatives from those groups, most are trying to discern what falls in the purview of the state and what falls into local. They may have disagreements with current education policy but who’s to blame remains unclear to most.
So if Commissioner Schwinn is actually receiving threats, my supposition would be that they are coming from a random crackpot, opposed to an organized effort. But I was never asked for my supposition.
For my part, I assured the agent that I would never physically threaten another human being, nor would I associate with anyone who harbored such intentions. I find the whole idea abhorrent.
The whole situation was rather puzzling. If he found none of my writings threatening and he had no interest in asking if I had knowledge of anybody else who might wish harm to the commissioner, why was he at my house?
If I was investigating say, a bank robbery, I would be out talking to people who I suspected of robbing banks or who knew people who robbed banks. That didn’t seem to be the case here.
In the course of our conversation, he did reveal that Ms. Schwinn had shown him a screenshot depicting a graphic from a past post. The graphic was one of two figures in bed with the faces of Ms. Schwinn and me superimposed on the bodies. A graphic that could arguably be considered in poor taste.
Also, one that I had nothing to do with its creation. The graphic comes from a man who lives in the commissioner’s hometown of Sacramento. He takes my blogs, repackages them with a graphic he creates, and redistributes them. I have no involvement whatsoever, other than the benefit of wider distribution.
The agent seemed satisfied with the explanation, reiterating that this investigation was not coming at the behest of Ms.Schwinn, who was a tireless public servant who understood the nature of her position and would have preferred to just ignore perceived threats and continue in her pursuit of life, justice, and the American way in servitude of the citizens of Tennessee – or something like that. It was just that the Office of Homeland Security had an obligation to pursue all threads.
Again, if I was looking for bank robbers…
One other example that was given was the agent’s personal opinion that my post Kalifornication, might be considered in questionable taste. I was never able to get a clear answer as to why, but I’ll leave that to your discretion.
So just to be clear…in no way, shape, or form do I evoke any ill-will or harm towards the Commissioner or her family, nor do I endorse anybody else holding such views. Threatening people with physical harm or trying to intimidate those who hold alternative views is morally abhorrent to me.
I believe in our system and the need to let it work.
But after Thursday, I can’t help but wonder if the same holds true for myself and my family. As pleasant as the visit was, and while no overt threats or even hints were delivered, it’s hard not to question the true purpose of the visit.
MORE FRIENDS AND FAMILY
Since the Governor initially announced his plans to hold a three-month review process of the state’s BEP formula, my questions continue to center around the logistics of the plan. Managing 18 sub-committees, each made up of about 20 individuals, is no small feat and under the best of conditions would be a daunting task. For an understaffed and already over-tasked Department of Education, it seems completely unfeasible.
Ah, but there may be some clarity coming. Word on the street is that the TNDOE is in the process of contracting with a new company founded by a dear friend of the commissioner and two other former members of the national non-profit Chiefs for Change.
The name of the company is ILO, and I wrote about them a few weeks ago. Formed back in March, by three principal owners – one of whom is the former Chief of Staff and close personal friend of Ms. Schwinn – the company has already run afoul of the procurement process in Rhode Island, where they received a $5.2 million contract despite having less experience and entering a higher bid than their primary competitor.
Per the Boston Globe,
The consulting firm formed two days after McKee took office and one day before McKee took part in a Zoom meeting with Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee, a McKee ally and donor who mentioned ILO during the call. That meeting led to a contract for ILO, whose managing partner, Julia Rafal-Baer, then worked for Chiefs for Change and had been invited to the Zoom meeting. Senators also noted Rafal-Baer was on a state task force that issued a report on issues ILO was later hired to address.
Hmmm…some of that sounds remarkably familiar.
Not only are there questions about the procurement process, but also the necessity of the contract itself.
Again, quoting the Boston Globe, “Senate Minority Whip Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, maintained that McKee’s administration hired an expensive consulting company to perform functions that state employees were already handling.”
Now that definitely has a familiar ring to it.
Something else that should have a familiar ring is the connection of Governor McKee’s advisor and Chiefs for Change CEO Mike McGee., This comes from a WPRI report,
Magee is also one of McKee’s top political donors, contributing $5,650 to his campaigns since 2008. His brother, Marc Porter Magee, leads a group called 50CAN whose political action committee spent six-figure sums supporting McKee’s campaigns for lieutenant governor in 2014 and 2018.
50Can is the parent organization for TennesseeCAN. An organization formerly led by Governor Lee’s Legislative Director Brent Easily. Their current leader, Victor Evans, will lead the Economically Disadvantaged and Highly Mobile Students Subcommittee for the BEP review committee.
It’s also worth noting that back in 2016, 50CAN merged with Students First, the advocacy organization that was created by Michelle Rhee. Michelle Rhee is married to the former Democrat Mayor of Sacramento, a primary supporter of Commissioner Schwinn’s run for school board all those years ago.
Does anybody else notice that there are a whole lot of Democrats involved in this business? Not that I’m opposed to their involvement, I’d just rather see more of it in the halls of the capitol and less in the backrooms of the Governor’s house.
If the commissioner is indeed contracting with ILO, it wouldn’t be an action without precedent. Remember in Texas, she contracted with SPEDx – a newly formed company founded by a friend. Let’s not forget the contract between the state and Commissioner Schwinn’s husband’s employer to the tune of $8 million dollars.
Equally concerning would be the fact that if a contract does exist or is being negotiated between the state and ILO, it would be a sole-source no-bid contract, a practice that Governor Lee’s administration has been all too willing to engage in despite criticism from legislators.
Maybe all of this is just idle chatter coming from the haters on the street, but the very fact that so many coincidences can be drawn between out-of-state actions and in-state practices should be a reason for concern.
To once again quote Rhode Island’s Senate Minority Whip Jessica de la Cruz, “My mom used to say, ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,’ and there is a lot of smoke here.”
PRESSING QUESTIONS ABOUT STATE BEP REVIEW PROCESS
Here’s a question I haven’t heard addressed during the early portion of the BEP review committee rollout, who’s picking up the check?
Organizing a steering committee and 18 subcommittees, along with holding 12 town halls meetings does not come without cost. So where is the funding coming from? Shouldn’t a process focusing on funding schools be transparent in how the process is being funded?
Are they using a pot of discretionary funding available to the Governor? Are they using ESSER funds? If they are using ESSER funds, how are they accessing them so quickly while individual school districts have been unable to get their hands on their allotment?
While we asking questions, has anybody else noticed that at least half of the proposed sub-committee meetings are scheduled to be held during the holiday season? A time when the business world virtually shuts down?
I’m assuming that those involved in the committees will have a heavy social schedule filled with holiday commitments. Yet they’ll be expected to squeeze in 5-hour committee meetings as well?
The evidence keeps mounting to make the argument that all of this is merely a show and that the Governor already has his plan written out.
The more this unfolds, the more it continues to resemble a poorly written scripted reality show, created to benefit a few individuals over the stakeholders of Tennessee’s education system.
But we’ll continue to watch, hoping for an unforeseen plot twist.
MNPS’s sole school board meeting for October is scheduled for Tuesday, October 26th. On the consent, agenda are requested approval for several contracts to upgrade individual school HVAC. Welcome news and a positive sign. The rest of the agenda seems fairly rudimentary with no mention of next year’s district schedule, Dr.Battle’s performance review, nor any talk around the exclusion of two zoned high schools from the recently expanded Bridges to Belmont scholarship program.
Local education superhero Jill Speering has written a book, and it’s a doozy. Covering her formative years through her education career, including her years of service on Nashville’s Board of Education, she gives insight into what the world of education looks like from the front lines. You can now order an advanced copy through Amazon. You don’t want to miss this one.
MNPS Board Member Emily Masters describes Speerings book such,
From horrifying descriptions of her attempts to shield her mother from her father’s abuse to uplifting accounts of her determination to stand up for the “underdogs” with whom she so deeply identifies, Speering’s Rubies in the Rubble is more than a memoir; it is a call to action for anyone who has ever felt helpless at the hands and will of a bully. It is a story of triumph over difficult circumstances and refusal to succumb to the aggression of a manipulative egomaniac who is more than willing to make personal attacks and create chaos where reason should clearly be the reigning motivation
One of the most talked-about subjects in education circles is the lack of available substitute teachers. Today educator Peter Greene more eloquently asks the question that I’ve tried to continually raise – what are you doing about it?
Remember–it is not a substitute shortage. There are literally thousands of people in your community who could be substitute teachers, if only you gave them convincing reasons to choose to do so. Your problem is the same as many employers bemoaning staffing problems right now; it’s no use complaining that people ought to work, but instead, you need to answer the question “Why should somebody want to do this job for you?”
It’s a question relevant to many of the staffing issues currently faced by schools. including bus drivers who are doubling and tripling routes in order to meet the needs of families and students.
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. Now more than ever your continued support is vital.
If you are interested, I’m now sharing posts via email through Substack. This is a new foray for me and an effort to increase coverage. ‘ll be offering free and paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will receive additional materials as they become available. We’ll see how it goes.
If you wish 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. Not begging, just saying.