Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett and School Superintendent Jim McIntyre entered into a battle of words Friday over a school secretary's controversial absence from work.
Early in the day, Burchett issued a press release that accused the Board of Education and the superintendent for creating the "mess" that has led to Tina Needham getting placed on paid administrative leave for more than two years.
He noted that school officials, particularly McIntyre, blamed the matter on the county's Law Department, when the "school system employment decisions are the responsibility of the superintendent and school board, not the law department."
"There continues to be a lot of unanswered questions surrounding the school system's decision to allow an employee to receive paid leave for over two years," the mayor said. "I have a lot of questions myself, including: what exactly was the rationale for such a decision, who was afraid this employee would sue the schools, and why did the school superintendent not simply say, 'fine, let's go to a judge?'
After learning of Burchett's comments, McIntyre issued his own statement, saying that he found it "appalling" that Burchett commented "purely out of ignorance."
"As Superintendent, I take full responsibility for the Needham case, as I do for all personnel matters in the school system," McIntyre said. "This case is actually a good example of our working with the Law Director's Office to come to a mutually beneficial outcome with an employee. I would hope that with an entire county to run the mayor could find more productive and relevant things to put out press releases about."
Needham, an administrative secretary in the Central Office, was placed on paid administrative leave in early July 2012 – more than two years ago – and still collects a check.
McIntyre signed off on the move.
Investigation: Knox County school employee on paid leave for two years
Needham, who earns $27,555 annually, was initially hired in early January 2011. Her duties included "office filing, making copies, answering phones and putting packets together for orientation," according to her personnel file.
"One thing, however, is clear. This situation was created by the school system and not the law director," Burchett said. "It looks like the school system created what, at best, could be called a mess and is now looking to the law director's office to clean it up."
The county offered Needham $10,000 to resign in November 2013, but she declined.
More recently, the law department made another offer. Needham has about a month to respond.
School officials have been tight-lipped about the matter, and will not explain why Needham was placed on administrative leave with pay. The school system says it cannot comment due to HIPAA, the medical privacy laws.
Health reasons, though, wouldn't necessarily explain why Needham was placed on administrative leave rather than medical leave, which isn't paid – or why she is still on the payroll.
However, something happened in spring 2012 that led to her going on leave in July of that year, according to a letter sent last November from the county to Needham.
"As you know, you were placed on leave after a disturbance which occurred in April 2012 (and) you have not returned to work, though your pay has continued unabated," the Nov. 27 letter states. "Knox County Schools would now like to end its employment relationship with you. To that end, Knox County Schools is willing to pay you the sum of $10,000."
Needham's attorney, Michael Menefee, has suggested that he's working on a settlement with the county, but that he couldn't comment due to "confidentiality agreements that are in place."
The mayor and the county's legal staff said that's not the case.
"There will be no secret settlements," Burchett said Friday. "The public has a right to know where their money is going and why."
After told about McIntyre's remarks, county spokesman Michael Grider said: "The mayor stands behind his entire statement and believes, as the general public does, that every question raised remains relevant."