Penny Schwinn leaving as education commissioner in Lee adminstration

Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bobby Rolfe and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn applaud Gov. Bill Lee’s first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Penny Schwinn, Gov. Bill Lee’s education commissioner since 2019, is leaving in July. She will be succeeded by Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds. Reynolds is a vice president of ExcelinEd, a school choice organization founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Here’s the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced the appointment of Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds as commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE), effective July 1. Reynolds will succeed Dr. Penny Schwinn, who will step down at the end of the school year after more than four years of service to Tennesseans.

“During her years of dedicated service, Penny has played a key role in our administration’s work to ensure educational opportunity for Tennessee students and secure the next generation of teachers, while navigating historic learning challenges,” said Lee. “I have tremendous gratitude for her leadership and wish her much success in her next chapter.”

Dr. Penny Schwinn joined the Lee administration in January 2019 and has served the state through some of the most challenging education crises in modern history. During Schwinn’s tenure, considerable initiatives to accelerate K-12 education have been implemented and several nationally recognized initiatives have been introduced, including:

• School Funding Reform: In 2022, the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) Act reformed the state’s outdated 30-year-old funding formula and made the largest recurring investment in state history.

• Education Savings Account Program: Tennessee implemented the Education Savings Account (ESA) program to give Tennessee parents a choice in their child’s education. Today, 1,400 students have been approved to attend the school of their choice and nearly 500 students are enrolled in a participating school.

• Preparing the Future Workforce: Tennessee has strengthened vocational education opportunities to give students the skills needed to join the workforce, investing $500 million to expand middle and high school career and technical education programs and extending additional dual enrollment credits for high school juniors and seniors through the Governor’s Investment in Education (GIVE) program. Tennessee also created the Future Workforce Initiative to increase STEM training in K-12 schools, aimed at placing Tennessee in the top 25 states for creating technology jobs by launching new Computer Science and STEM-focused programs

• Teaching Apprenticeship: Tennessee became the first state in the country to make teaching an apprentice-based profession, making it free to become a teacher while being paid to do so. The Grow Your Own initiative has significantly increased the number of teachers, special education and ESL endorsements, aspiring principals and assistant principals, and school leaders of color.

• Prioritizing Literacy & Learning Loss Intervention: Tennessee was among the first states to get students back in the classroom in 2020 and swiftly address learning loss. During an historic special legislative session in January 2021, Gov. Lee and members of the General Assembly passed strong literacy programs to benefit students, namely Reading 360, which has led to almost full academic recovery and created the largest permanent summer school program serving pre-K–9th grade and the largest state tutoring program in the country with over 200,000 students served.

• Innovative School Models: With the single largest one-time investment in public education in state history, Tennessee’s Innovative School Models grant expanded postsecondary opportunities for middle and high school students and more than quadrupled the number of apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities for students.

Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds will succeed Schwinn as commissioner of TDOE.

“Lizzette’s significant education policy expertise and leadership make her well-suited to continue our work to deliver a high-quality education and expand school choice for Tennessee students,” said Lee. “I welcome her to Tennessee and appreciate her service to students, families and teachers across the state.”

Reynolds is currently the Vice President of Policy for ExcelinEd and has previously served as deputy legislative director for then-Governor George W. Bush, Special Assistant in the Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs for U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Regional Representative for U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Chief Deputy Commissioner at the Texas Education Agency. Her career reflects a deep commitment to school choice, assessment and accountability, college and career pathways and education policy. She earned her undergraduate degree from Southwestern University. She is married to David Reynolds and has three children, Luke, Lillianna and Joaquin.

Sam Pearcy, currently Deputy Commissioner of Operations at TDOE, will serve as the department’s interim commissioner until July 1.

Lee names new communications director, legal counsel

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters following his address to a joint convention of the General Assembly on Jan. 19, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee on Monday announced Casey Black Sellers will take over from Laine Arnold as commutations director and Erin Merrick will succeed Jonathan Skrmetti as chief legal counsel. Arnold is moving to Lee’s re-election campaign while the state Supreme Court named Skrmetti attorney general last week.

Here’s the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced the appointments of Erin Merrick to succeed Jonathan Skrmetti as Chief Legal Counsel, effective September 1, and Casey Black Sellers to succeed Laine Arnold as Director of Communications, effective September 2. Skrmetti will assume the role of Tennessee Attorney General and Reporter. Arnold will lead communications for the governor’s re-election campaign in addition to starting a strategic communications venture for corporations and causes.

“Jonathan is a brilliant legal mind with vast experience at the state and federal levels, and Tennesseans will be well-represented by his service as Attorney General,” said Lee. “Erin is a dedicated public servant who will lead with integrity and bring significant expertise as Chief Legal Counsel, and I appreciate her continued service to Tennessee.”

Erin Merrick currently serves as Lee’s deputy legal counsel, a role she has held since 2019. Previously, Merrick was an assistant attorney general in the Tennessee Office of the Attorney General, where she practiced state and federal civil litigation before both trial and appellate courts. Merrick earned her bachelor’s degree at American University and holds a master’s degree in Economics and Juris Doctor from Vanderbilt University.

“Laine’s leadership and insight as Communications Director and Senior Advisor have played an invaluable role in my administration. I commend her work to ensure key priorities and accomplishments were communicated effectively, and Maria and I treasure her friendship,” said Lee. “Casey has been an integral member of our team, and I have full confidence that her extensive communications experience will continue to serve Tennesseans well.”

Casey Black Sellers currently serves as Lee’s press secretary. Sellers has deep experience in state and federal political communications, including service with U.S. Representative David Kustoff of Tennessee and former U.S. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. Sellers earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Jade Cooper Byers, currently deputy press secretary, will assume key responsibilities as Lee’s press secretary. Byers earned her bachelor’s degree at Belmont University and has served Lee since his successful primary run in 2018.

Lee names McDonald as interim health commissioner

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020, as then-Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey looks on. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has named Morgan McDonald as the interim commissioner of the state Health Department. McDonald was previously the agency’s deputy commissioner for population health. She takes over from Lisa Piercey, who announced in April she planned to return to private practice.

Here is the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced the appointment of Dr. Morgan McDonald, MD, FACP, FAAP, as interim commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH), effective Friday, June 3.

“Dr. McDonald is a committed public servant, and I appreciate her continued leadership during this time of transition,” said Lee. “I am confident she will serve Tennesseans with integrity.”

McDonald is the Deputy Commissioner for Population Health at the TDH and formerly served as an Assistant Commissioner and the Deputy Medical Director for Family, Health and Wellness. McDonald earned her undergraduate and medical degrees from Vanderbilt University and completed her residency in internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

McDonald will serve until a permanent commissioner is named.

Wiseman to leave Lee administration on Friday

Deputy to the Governor Lang Wiseman, left, and then-Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter confer before Gov. Bill Lee’s first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Lang Wiseman, the deputy to Gov. Bill Lee and the administration’s chief legal counsel, is stepping down on Friday. Wiseman’s plans to leave had been announced earlier, but he had not given a firm date for his departure. Lee has yet to name a successor.

Wiseman is a former University of Tennessee basketball star who went on to earn a law degree from Harvard University. He is also a former Shelby County Republican Party chair who later served on the reconstituted UT board. Wiseman’s departure coincides with a changing of the guard in the chief of staff position. Blake Harris, who was a top Lee campaign adviser, is being succeeded by Joseph Williams, who previously handled outreach to conservative activists.

Here’s is an email sent by Wiseman on Monday:

After announcing a number of weeks ago that I would be transitioning back to the private sector, I wanted to confirm that my last day of service in the Governor’s Office is scheduled for this next Friday, December 3rd.  I wanted also to take moment to say what an honor and privilege it has been to serve alongside you these past few years.  I will certainly miss the meaningful work and opportunity to serve, but I will miss most the people with whom I’ve been so fortunate to walk this journey, and I hope and expect to continue our friendship.  Thank you so much for your many kindnesses, assistance, understanding, and patience shown to me along the way.

My plan is to stay here in Nashville and, after a few weeks off to recharge, to start my next professional endeavor in January (the specifics of which I am still mulling over).  […]  Please do not ever hesitate to reach out. 

Looking forward to keeping in touch.

The other shoe drops on Rogers, Goins ousters at Veterans Services

Veterans Services Commissioner Courtney Rogers attends the groundbreaking ceremony for the Bradley County Tennessee State Veterans’ Home on Aug. 21, 2019. (Image Credit: Tennessee Department of Veterans Services)

A state investigation into former Veterans Services Commissioner Courtney Rogers found the former Republican lawmaker had engaged in “frequent yelling and belittling employees, inappropriate comments made in public, and use of racial and homophobic stereotypes and slurs.”

Rogers and her deputy, former Rep. Tilman Goins, resigned late last month. Goins was alleged to have engaged in a romantic relationship with a subordinate at the agency.

On a visit to a military base, witnesses said Rogers described a specific race as “prostitutes who slept their way into the United States.” According to the investigation summary, Rogers “did not deny making the statement and did not recall in what context she would have made the comment.”

During a mediation at the department, Rogers is also alleged to have referred to the other party as “another black guy looking for a free ride.” She denied those comments, saying “she may have referred to the individual as ‘someone sticking it to the man.’”

Former Rep. Tilman Goins, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Veterans Services, speaks at a training conference on Nov. 18, 2019. (Image Credit: Tennessee Department of Veterans Services)

According a person who filed a complaint against Rogers, the commissioner yelled at her during a car ride in October 2019.

“I’m sick of your stupid mouth!” the staffer recalled Rogers shouting at her. “I’m going to quit and tell the governor it’s all your fault!”

Another person corroborated those events, but Rogers said she did not recall yelling.

Lee names DeBerry to Cabinet

Rep. John DeBerry.

Former Rep. John DeBerry, who lost his independent bid for re-election after being drummed out of the Democratic Party for his habit of voting with the GOP on issues like school vouchers and abortion, has been named to Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s Cabinet. The senior adviser position will pay $165,000 per year.

DeBerry’s reelection bid was notable for the former lawmaker’s decision not to touch a more than $192,000 balance in his campaign account to support the campaign. He ended up receiving just 23% of the vote compared with Democratic nominee Torrey Harris’ 77%.

Here’s the release from Lee’s office.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced that former member of the General Assembly Representative John DeBerry of Memphis will join his cabinet as a senior advisor.

“John DeBerry is a respected leader and man of faith who has served our state with integrity for decades as both a legislator and civil rights champion,” said Gov. Lee. “John has fought to protect life, provide better education options for Tennessee students, and to reform our criminal justice system and I’m honored to have his counsel within the Cabinet.”

DeBerry has represented the 90th House District of Tennessee since 1995. He is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University and the University of Memphis and currently preaches at the Coleman Avenue Church of Christ in Memphis in addition to churches and organizations across the country.

“It’s been an honor to serve my constituents for the last 26 years,” said DeBerry. “I am proud of the work accomplished throughout my time with the Tennessee General Assembly and I look forward to serving Tennesseans in this statewide role.”

DeBerry will begin on Tuesday, December 1. In his role, DeBerry will serve on the governor’s Executive Leadership Team and his office will be in the Tennessee State Capitol. 

Lee names Mathews interim commissioner of Human Services Department

Gov. Bill Lee has named Tony Mathews as the interim commissioner of the state Human Services Department. He takes over from Danielle Barnes, who has left state government for the private sector.

“Tony Mathews has served the Department of Human Services well and I thank him for his willingness to take on this important role,” Lee said in a statement. “Human Services provides critical programs to Tennessee families in need and we’re committed to maintaining an excellent standard of customer service during this transition period.”

Mathews has served as the agency’s deputy commissioner and chief operating officer since May 2017. He previously worked for private health insurance companies Aetna and Cigna after stints with TennCare and the Department of Environment and Conservation.

McWhorter leaving Lee administration for higher education, private sector

Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter, right, and Deputy to the Governor Lang Wiseman confer before Gov. Bill Lee’s first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Former Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter is leaving Gov. Bill Lee’s administration after overseeing the “unified command” for the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

McWhorter will become a senior adviser to Clemson University, his alma mater. He will also return to the private sector. Butch Eley has taken over as finance commissioner.

Here’s what The Tennessee Journal wrote when McWhorter stepped down as finance commissioner in March:

McWhorter, the chairman of a healthcare venture capital firm who had served on the board of the Lee Co., was an early backer of Lee’s long-shot gubernatorial bid. He eventually served as the campaign’s finance chairman and was one of Lee’s first appointments following the 2018 election. The finance commissioner is traditionally the governor’s chief Cabinet officer, though McWhorter has appeared at his least comfortable when pressed by reporters about controversies ranging from school vouchers to the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust at the Capitol. He has been more content to focus on the budget planning elements of the job, in which he has presided over a wild roller-coaster ride from the days of overflowing tax coffers to having to cut about $1 billion of the upcoming spending plan to account for the expected economic fallout from the coronavirus.

Here’s the full release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced next steps for the Unified-Command Group as Stuart McWhorter departs the administration at the end of May to go back to the private sector and to take on a senior advisory role at Clemson University.

“Stuart has been a tremendous asset to my administration, first as the commissioner of Finance and Administration, then in his role as director for our COVID-19 response through Unified-Command,” said Gov. Lee. “His ability to apply private-sector expertise to public-sector challenges has served our state well and I wish him the best in his new chapter with his alma mater’s entrepreneurship and innovation planning.”

The Unified-Command Group, comprised of the Tennessee Department of Health, the Tennessee Department of Military and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, has established working procedures for testing, procurement, hospital capacity contingency planning, data analysis and other core functions in the fight against COVID-19. The Unified-Command Group
continues to coordinate with the Economic Recovery Group through planning and executing on the safe re-boot of Tennessee’s economy.

“The strong work of Unified-Command will continue as we address the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis,” said Lee. “This group has optimized our state’s response and we will keep this model in place for as long as needed.”

Lee holds Cabinet meeting to launch distressed counties summit

Gov. Bill Lee welcomes delegates to a summit on economically distressed counties in Linden on Aug. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has convened his Cabinet in Perry County to kick off a summit on economically distressed counties

Here’s a release from the governor’s office :

LINDEN, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee convened his cabinet for a meeting with local officials from Tennessee’s 15 distressed counties during the Governor’s Rural Opportunity Summit in Perry County.

The meeting caps a state government-wide audit mandated under Executive Order 1 which examines how departments are serving rural areas, specifically distressed counties. Executive Order 1 also required departments to provide suggestions for improvements moving forward.

“I’ve challenged my cabinet to think critically about how we are helping our rural areas,” said Lee. “With 15 distressed counties in the bottom 10 percent of the nation in terms of poverty, average income and unemployment, we have serious work to do and I believe we are up to the challenge.”

23 state government departments submitted significant analysis that showed rural areas will benefit from the improved coordination of services and overall alignment of departments in serving rural Tennessee. Additionally, departments provided innovation recommendations for potential programs and solutions to be considered by the Lee Administration.

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