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Employees concerned at TN Education Department that state is unprepared for TCAP

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(SBG photo)
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Governor Bill Lee's appointed commissioner of the Department of Education comes to Tennessee from Texas with big ideas on how to rectify what has been a pedestrian education system over the years.

A FOX 17 News investigation into her redesigns of the department have uncovered a lot of angst and worry from employees -- current and former. An employee that recently quit wrote in an email to FOX 17 News, "The current state of the department is very worrisome in terms of staffing numbers and staffing qualifications."

Many of the new hires at the department are making well over $100,000 while an 18 year veteran of Metro Nashville Public Schools says her take-home-pay amounts to just under $38,000 per year.

For example, the new deputy commissioner who had never worked in a state agency before makes $180,000. Two assistant commissioners make $130,000 each despite no previous experience working in Tennessee, and the chief district officer made $130,000, but she was recently fired. The chief operating officer hauls in $144,000, and finally, the chief of data and strategy makes $159,000 and his assistant makes $90,000.

A former employee who left earlier this year says that these positions are being paid for by leaving other positions unfilled, shrinking several existing teams. "There is also not money to truly fund these high-salary positions which means that the commissioner steals positions from other teams are they are vacated." In the case of this former employee's team, the remaining employees picked up extra work but were reportedly denied raises.

Because of his work in both Florida and Tennessee, teachers' advocate J.C. Bowman from Professional Educators of Tennessee offered insight into how a state department should support districts and its teachers.

"Every single position at a district level has to align to support that teacher. Every single position at the state level has to align to support the district. If those two things aren't happening, you have to question whether its needed for not," Bowman explained.

Bowman hopes the big salaries buy loyalty and longevity -- two traits he sees as pivotal to statewide success. Unfortunately, current employees tell FOX 17 that many midlevel employees (the so-called worker bees of the department) are quitting or getting fired at a rate that is unusual. One former employee attributes that to what is described as a "truly disturbing" work environment.

The three whistleblowers which wrote to FOX 17 News all requested anonymity to protect their professional careers. Their ultimate concern with the new hires and staff turnover is that the state is unprepared to administer a successful TCAP -- the test that measures success in the classroom. Even at full staff, the state has had problems effectively administering the test in the past. Several have left the assessment team including the two individuals with the most experience in "assessment content and logistics."

An employee still with the department sums up her concerns by saying, "There is a complete lack of urgency or understanding regarding the human resource needs to launch an effective assessment in support of the districts, schools, teachers, students and parents of Tennessee."

Bowman adds, "That doesn't bode well for education as a whole, you need people to be there."

Commissioner Penny Schwinn spokes Tuesday morning to superintendents from across Tennessee, laying out her strategic vision for "whole child support" and "quality academic programs."

Schwinn told the gathering, "This strategic plan prioritizes the three key areas of providing quality academic programs, serving the whole child, and developing and supporting our teachers and leaders."

At a press conference after her speech, she added, "We want to ensure that we are thinking about the whole child so every single student gets the supports they need to be successful."

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She has confidence in the direction her department is headed, but the dread is apparent in the emails and phone calls from all three whistleblowers. They remain hopeful though, saying they "owe the people of the state to be good stewards of state resources and to ensure we deliver the assessment with excellence and fidelity to provide quality and useful results to our districts."

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