Two years ago, Gabriella Bulos-Ciscato, a first-grade teacher at Hughey Elementary School, was able to take almost two months of paid maternity leave after accumulating her paid time off as soon as she and her husband started trying to get pregnant.

Gabriella Bulos-Ciscato

Now, Bulos-Ciscato is expecting again, but the surprise pregnancy didn’t allow her to save paid time off. For her, EPISD’s new 10-day parental leave policy comes at the perfect time.

“That’s such great news to know that I can take 10 days off from work and it will be paid,” she said.

As of July 1, the El Paso Independent School District is the first of El Paso County’s nine districts to offer paid parental leave. EPISD is just the eighth district in Texas to offer such a benefit, according to information provided during budget workshops (staff did not provide the names of the other districts).

Texas does not mandate paid parental leave, and the United States is the only one out of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 38 member nations that does not require employers to provide some form of paid parental leave.

Norma De La Rosa, president of the El Paso Teachers Association, called EPISD’s new parental leave policy “earth-shattering.”

“People are still sending me text messages (saying), ‘Is this for real?’,” De La Rosa said.

Many school employees planning to get pregnant accumulate their state personal leave and local paid sick leave – five days and a maximum of eight days, respectively. Those who qualify for the Family and Medical Leave Act can take additional days of unpaid leave. For those who don’t qualify for FMLA, any additional absences are deducted from their pay.

New expenses and adapting to a new family member can bring both financial and emotional stress.

“The last thing any mother should have to be worried about when you’re experiencing all these new changes is worrying when I have to go back to work so I could pay the bill,” Bulos-Ciscato said.

Daniel Call

Trustee Daniel Call proposed the parental leave policy after the birth of his fifth child at the start of the year. It was the first time he was able to take parental leave. At the same time, his friend’s wife, who works for the district, couldn’t take paid time off after giving birth.

“When I found out about that, I thought that that was ridiculous,” Call said.

Call said his fellow trustees, who unanimously approved the policy on June 23, thought implementing paid parental leave was “the right thing to do.” But they also recognize that the policy can incentivize potential and current employees, especially during a nationwide teacher shortage.

“We’re trying really hard to be competitive in the pay and the benefits that we offer our new employees and also retaining current employees and keeping them from going somewhere else to work,” Call said.

The school board had to balance the desire to provide this benefit to employees and EPISD’s current and future budget constraints as a result of years of declining enrollment, Call said. Texas largely funds school districts based on daily attendance.

The policy is expected to cost $400,000 for the 2022-23 school year, covering up to 80 employees. The budget for this paid leave will fluctuate throughout the years depending on salaries, said Jill Crossley, director of elementary personnel and recruiting.

Last school year, 52 employees took some form of maternity leave.

The 10-day paid leave is part of the 2022-23 compensation package that included a 7% teacher pay raise.

Although there is excitement surrounding the policy,  there’s also confusion regarding the requirements employees must meet to qualify for the paid leave, according to De La Rosa.

According to Crossley, the paid parental leave is only available to full-time employees having children or adopting. Both moms and dads can take advantage of it, and if both work for the district, they are entitled to 10 days each. These days off are available after all other paid time off is used. New employees can use them right away.

Trustee Leah Hanany said the board hopes to expand the length of the leave in the future since “10 days isn’t a long time.” In an interview, Call expressed wanting to eventually expand the policy to at least 20 days. Bulos-Ciscato said she thinks the leave should be at least three months long.

The trustees also said they hope other El Paso-area districts follow their lead, a sentiment De La Rosa shared.

“I hope that it will encourage other districts to follow suit because this is just a natural part of life, to have babies,” she said.

Hanany would like to see other local entities join EPISD in offering paid parental leave to, hopefully, influence legislation to require this paid time off for parents at the federal level. President Joe Biden has pushed for a federal paid family and medical leave policy, but his plan has been met with concern from members of Congress due to its cost.

“If we can have small businesses, districts, some of the local entities, you know, paving the way, hopefully, that can send a message that says this is what’s important for our families, for our employees,” Hanany said. “It’s really up to Congress to get this passed on a broader scale.”