BLACKWELL — A Blackwell Public Schools teacher quit her job in May after she said she received conflicting information from administrators and was “forced out” of her classroom when she tried to take maternity leave. But the district said it was simply following its policies, a claim that highlights the significance of a new state law that took effect July 1 mandating paid maternity leave for full-time employees of school districts.
Haley Curfman, who had taught second grade at Blackwell Elementary School for the past eight years, gave birth to her first child in May, five days after the school year ended. Although it felt fortuitous that the birth coincided with the end of the school year in a way that might minimize her absence from the classroom, Curfman said she still wanted time home with her newborn that would extend into the fall semester. As a result, she told the district in February that she would be using her accrued personal and sick leave to take time off.
While Curfman said she was initially told that would be fine, she said her principal and superintendent eventually told her she would not be able to use accrued sick leave to stay home with her son after the doctor said she had recovered from childbirth. Curfman still planned to use her 12 weeks provided by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows women to take maternity leave at any time within a year after the birth of a child.
Eventually, when administrators told Curfman they could not find a long-term substitute teacher for her class, she said they told her she would be moved to a different position. Curfman said she felt like she was facing backlash for trying to take maternity leave, a policy topic discussed extensively by the Oklahoma Legislature this year.
“It’s been a definite upsetting and frustrating time,” Curfman said in an interview Monday. “That’s an understatement.”
Curfman, who had been in the same second-grade classroom for eight years, said the district wanted to move her to a “kindergarten reading specialist” position requiring less instructional time with fewer students. Although the district called it a “lateral” move and said she would not lose any pay, it felt like a demotion, Curfman said. Under the FMLA, temporary lateral moves are allowed when a teacher takes maternity leave. Curfman said she received conflicting information about whether the transfer would be temporary or permanent.
“I was losing my classroom and everything that I put in it because of maternity leave,” Curfman said. “The only thing they could give me was, ‘We have to think about the students. We have to think about the students.’ But (…) I think about the students every single day. It’s condescending to say that to me. It’s literally all I think about, which is why I gave you (administrators) six or seven months to find [a substitute].”
Curfman said she felt as though she were being punished for doing nothing wrong.
“The whole point of it is I should not have lost my classroom and my position of eight years because of maternity leave,” Curfman said.
‘Schools can’t find people’
After a school board meeting Monday night, Blackwell Superintendent Shawn Haskins said that he could not discuss specific personnel issues involving Curfman, but he emphasized that the district does not discriminate against employees.
“Sometimes life sucks, and sometimes you think you’re getting screwed,” Haskins said. “Just pick up your bag and march forward. But nobody’s getting discriminated — I’m not gonna allow it. It’s against the law.”
Haskins said his district tries to find long-term substitutes for teachers, but he noted that the ongoing teacher shortage makes it difficult.
“Schools can’t find people,” Haskins said. “We’re going to make decisions (about) what’s best for our kids to get them the best education.”
Curfman’s departure, however, leaves Blackwell Public Schools with one less veteran teacher. In a Facebook post July 6, she described the seemingly callous way Haskins treated her as she attempted to take time off.
“The superintendent even told me, in one of our meetings, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I know a lot of people by face in this town, but when I look at yours, I don’t recognize you,'” Curfman wrote on Facebook.
Curfman, who said she has lived in Blackwell for 24 years since she was in second grade herself, provided NonDoc with portions of audio recordings she made while discussing her situation with Haskins. One recording includes Haskins making the remark about not recognizing Curfman around town.
On Monday, Haskins defended his conversations with Curfman, saying he is well-liked and polite.
“I love all my employees,” he said. “And this is what I challenge you to do. Go talk to them. Go talk to them. And you will find out I’m not rude to anybody. I love people.”
During Monday’s Blackwell Public Schools Board of Education meeting, Haskins described the district’s FMLA and sick leave policies, saying that teachers are not allowed to use accrued sick leave simply to stay home with their child. Rather, he said sick leave must be used for sickness or injury or to care for a family member who is sick or injured. In Blackwell Public Schools, personal leave does not accrue, but teachers get a set amount each year in their contracts.
“Whenever that doctor releases you to go back to work (after giving birth), you can no longer use sick days unless you’re sick,” Haskins told board members.
But BPS district policy states that when employees are using their 12 weeks of leave authorized by FMLA, which can be used to stay at home and care for a newborn, employees must use accrued paid leave first, which includes sick leave.
Curfman said the stress of conflicting information about her requested maternity leave and the possibility that she might lose her classroom affected her pregnancy.
“I was actually hospitalized a couple times, because anxiety and stress and all that stuff was playing a part, and I was in the hospital for late nights and stuff, you know, borderline preterm labor,” Curfman said.
In another recording provided by Curfman, Haskins even seemed to agree with Curfman’s feeling that she was being demoted from second grade teacher to kindergarten reading specialist.
“I understand the frustration.” Haskins said.
Curfman replied: “Yes. I’m frustrated as hell.”
“I get that,” Haskins said. “I get how you can feel like, ‘Hey, I’m losing my position because I’m having a baby.'”
“I don’t just feel like that, that’s exactly what’s happening,” Curfman said.
Haskins responded: “I see your point. I see your point.”
Teacher maternity leave bill becomes law
The confusing situation comes as the Oklahoma Legislature recently passed a bill aimed at alleviating the stress faced by teachers who have children.
After SB 1121 became law July 1, any employee of a public school district — as well as full-time CareerTech instructors and educators with the Department of Corrections, the Office of Juvenile Affairs and the Department of Rehabilitation Services — will now be entitled to take up to six weeks of paid maternity leave.
Although the bill says the leave must be used immediately following birth, it also stipulates that it “shall be in addition to and not in place of sick leave due to pregnancy.” The new law also creates the Public School Paid Maternity Leave Revolving Fund to compensate districts implementing the policy. While the maternity leave proposal was being considered over the past two years, lawmakers heard concerns from some district leaders about the difficulty finding and paying for long-term substitute teachers.
Still, Haskins said that he does not expect the new law to change anything in his district.
“That’s something we will deal with, but what they just passed isn’t going to change anything here,” Haskins said. “Right now, the burden on (paying for) subs is on the district. Now the state is just going to take up that burden up to six weeks.”
Curfman, meanwhile, said she is unsure whether she will end up teaching in another district this falls or next spring. She said she has had offers already.
“I’m just kind of weighing my options right now,” Curfman said. “I have nothing set in stone at this point. I’m focused on my child.”