Officials now offering secretary $30,000 settlement to resign
A Knox County Schools secretary who has been on paid administrative leave for more than two years was actually cleared to return to work in January 2013, according to documents obtained by WBIR.
However, the secretary, Tina Needham, said in an email a year later that she was never given the chance to go back. She also said that she experienced "unprofessionalism, bullying and humiliation" as an employee in the school system's benefit's department.
Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre on Thursday, though, told WBIR that her return wasn't welcomed because employees "were afraid" of her.
McIntyre for weeks has remained tight-lipped about why the school system placed Needham, 51, on paid leave in early July 2012, and why she continues to receive a check.
The superintendent has said that he takes "full responsibility for the Needham case," but wouldn't comment due to HIPAA, the medical privacy laws.
That changed on Thursday.
In a statement to WBIR, McIntyre told 10News that although she was cleared to go back, the employees "were afraid to have her return . . . (so) the Law Director's Office has worked over the past several months to negotiate a separation settlement that might be mutually beneficial."
"Ms. Needham had an episode at work in 2012 where she was perceived to be a danger to herself and/or others. Law enforcement had to intervene, as did mobile crisis specialists," he said.
McIntyre's statement came late in the day Thursday after WBIR received a series of emails from the county under the state Open Records Act. 10News last week asked county officials for information pertaining to Needham's leave.
The documents also reveal that McIntyre and school board Chairwoman Lynne Fugate have authorized the county to pay Needham $30,000 so long as she resigns and releases the school system from any claims tied to disability or age discrimination.
The agreement also says that school officials will "give her a neutral job reference."
Needham, who is expected to sign it, has about two weeks left to make a decision.
Records released to WBIR on Thursday show that she initially asked for $50,000 and for the county to cover her insurance for a year, but McIntyre and Fugate balked.
As it stands, the county has paid Needham her salary for more than two years while she has not worked. She earns $27,555 annually. Benefits cost the county another $7,300 annually, according to the newly released information.
Needham's attorney, Michael Menefee, did not return calls seeking comment.
Needham was hired in early January 2011, but was placed on paid administrative leave about 18 months later.
The details surrounding her leave have been few.
But, a memo from the school system's risk management department to the law director's office, and an email from Needham to the school system's attorney, shed some light.
"Ms. Needham suffered an episode which caused alarm and concern among her supervisors and co-workers, and as a result of which, Ms. Needham took several months of leave," according to the July 25 memo. "She has been on administrative leave status since that time. Ms. Needham now desires to leave her employment with the Knox County Board of Education . . . ."
In a Dec. 17, 2013 email, Needham said she wasn't given a chance to return to work and that she wanted to meet with Steve Griffin, the former head of security of the school system, and Carolyn Lee, elementary staffing manager. She said she "wanted to tell my side of this matter."
She said she spoke with the schools human resources manager Kathy Sims and "several Knox County Schools supervisors and never received any guidance on what to do over the unprofessionalism, bullying and humiliation that I received working for Knox County Schools in the Employee Benefit's Department."
That email came almost a year after two emails – both dated Jan. 2, 2013 – which state that Needham could return to work.
"Attached you will find Dr. King's release note for Tina Needham. In regard to Tina's claimed work injury on 3-27-2012, she is released to full duty," states the email from Adam Parsons, the school system's safety engineer, to Rebecca Owen, the benefits supervisor at the time.
County officials declined to turn over the email attachment, citing HIPPA.
The Family Medical Leave Act, of FMLA, entitles eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave with health insurance coverage for certain family and medical reasons. It does not, however, guarantee a paycheck.
WBIR has attempted to interview Needham in the past, but she has not returned calls.