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Former TX SPED Director, Laurie Kash, Wins Wrongful Termination Lawsuit; TN “Wins” Penny Schwinn (?)

November 26, 2019

On November 21, 2017, then-Texas special education director, Laurie Kash, blew the whistle on the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) entering into a $4.4M no-bid contract with a special education data collecting company, SPEDx; she filed a report with the US Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Inspector General (OIG).

The following day– November 22, 2017– Kash was abruptly fired via email. (For these details and more, see my March 19, 2018, post.)

She sued for wrongful termination, and on November 22, 2019– two years to the day following Kash’s termination– the USDOE Office of Hearings and Appeals ruled in Kash’s favor. From the ruling:

The OIG report found that Kash’s communications with OIG and TEA’s internal audit office were a contributing factor in TEA’s decision to terminate her employment. Although TEA asserted other reasons for firing Kash, the OIG report found TEA did not provide clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same the personnel action without Kash’s disclosure.

Kash was awarded $135K “for proper back pay”; $67K in attorneys’ fees, and $800 for “additional costs,” for a total of just under $203K. However, Kash’s ordeal is not over; TEA is expected to withholding payment pending appeal.

Blowing whistles ceraintly is not easy.

And its not just SPED contracts that are at issue in Texas. It’s special education in general. From the March 2019 Texas Tribune:

Preparing to ask the federal government for $1 billion in special education grants, Texas education officials have indicated they do not expect to be able to adequately educate kids with disabilities until June 2020.

Texas is in the middle of a federally mandated overhaul of special education after a federal investigation found the state had for years been effectively denying students with disabilities the tools and services they needed in order to learn. Last May, state education officials submitted an application for federal funding saying they would comply with all federal requirements by this January, a timeline that appears to have been extended by a year and a half.

But back to Kash’s worgful termination suit:

Additional details from the ruling’s 60 pages include mention of former TEA deputy commissioner of academics, Teach for America (TFA) alum, Penny Schwinn:

Kash contends that she was retaliated against for disclosing: (1) that the SPEDx contract was arrived at without a proper bid process; (2) that Schwinn had a personal relationship with at least one of the leaders of the SPEDx / Cambria contract group and part of the group that developed the project; (3) that TEA paid for deliverables that it did not receive because the contract was not properly formed; and (4) that SPEDx did not provide additional useful insights that TEA did not already provide.

Schwinn left Texas to become Tennessee’s education commissioner effective February 2019. However, news of Kash’s wrongful termination lawsuit has found its way into the Tennessee Ed Report specifically for its connection to Schwinn, whose ed leadership has had an, um, purgative effect on the Tennessee ed department, as the November 15, 2019, Chalkbeat reports:

Tennessee’s education department has experienced an exodus under Commissioner Penny Schwinn, with almost a fifth of its employees leaving in the nine months since she took over.

The vast majority of the approximate 250 departures have been resignations rather than retirements or firings. …

The exits include people with decades of institutional knowledge, leaving many local school leaders wondering whom to call about everything from testing to information technology to early intervention programs for students with learning disabilities. Also gone are dozens of mid- and lower-level employees responsible for executing essential department responsibilities, including the state’s testing program. …

…Schwinn has created a workplace culture that has driven out both new and longstanding talent.

Schwinn and her lieutenants characterize the turnover as normal during a change in leadership. …

But the level of employee turnover is not typical. …

“The amount of talent that has been lost is staggering,” said one person who left this fall….

That person was among current or former employees interviewed by Chalkbeat who described a climate of miscommunication, micromanagement, and chaos, including 11th-hour scrambles to meet deadlines.

Schwinn landed her Tennessee job despite state auditor findings several months prior, in September 2018, of marked questionable decisions concerning TEA special education contracts, including Schwinn’s prior relationship with a SPEDx subcontractor.

In other words, the September 2018 audit confirmed Kash’s November 2017 concerns.

Following OIG’s November 22, 2019, judgment, Kash released the following statement to the press:

I was asked to come to lead the reformation of Special Education in Texas because I am known for my ethics, transparency, approachability, knowledge of law, but mostly for my deep dedication to serving others.  Essentially, I was asked to protect the children of Texas and the taxpayers of the United States.  I could not fail to do so even though I was told by Special Education leaders in DC that it would mean the loss of my job. The children of Texas deserved my every effort, and though that cost me my job, it should not have cost my dignity, my career, my health, and my reputation.  I do not regret protecting the children with disabilities in Texas.  I dont regret protecting the taxpayers.  I regret only the corruption inherent in the Texas system and the protections offered to the guilty in this case.

Wishing Kash the best on her appeal.

As for Tennessee’s Schwinn hire:

Tennessee should have paid attention to Texas news.

laurie kash

Laurie Kash

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Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

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