Some Tennessee lawmakers say they are concerned about employee turnover at the state’s Department of Education, wondering if it could have a long-term impact on the state agency.
It’s no secret that the agency is struggling to retain employees. According to data provided by the state, the turnover rate under Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s first nine months is about 18%.
Rep. Gary Hicks, R-Rogersville, told WPLN News he’s been hearing from people in his district about the issues within the state agency and about the concerns of the turnover rate.
“What we have to (do) as legislators is we just monitor the situation and try to figure out what those factors are that’s contributing to the rate that we are seeing,” Hicks said.
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, worries about the institutional knowledge in the agency.
“We do have concerns because of the amount of turnover, many from the institutional knowledge that we depend on to get answers,” White, the chairman of the House Education Committee, told WPLN News on Friday.
With about two weeks left for the General Assembly to reconvene, the latest resignations of Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash and of Policy Director Aleah Guthrie could impede the legislative work of the department.
Fiveash and Guthrie have helped White craft bills over multiple legislative sessions.
“I have to have somebody like Elizabeth and Aleah that I have built a trust with over years that would explain to me exactly what’s coming out of the Department,” White said. “That’s what I hate to lose.”
Fiveash declined to comment for this story. Guthrie didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Education Assistant Commissioner David Donaldson told WPLN News the department intends to have the legislative affairs team fully staffed before Jan. 14, the first day of the legislative session.
The Tennessee Department of Education has been facing some criticism after news reports showed the turnover rate at the Department of Education is unusually high this year.
Chalkbeat first reported that the agency has seen about 250 departures since January, when Schwinn was appointed.
But the agency disputes the numbers, saying the state didn’t collect enough turnover data to make an accurate comparison.
They point at turnover data coming out of the Achievement School District — the Tennessee Department of Human Resources didn’t include ASD numbers for former Commissioners Candice McQueen or Kevin Huffman.
They also claim the elimination of the Read to Be Ready Program reading coaches also contributed to the higher rate.