Democratic candidate for Cobb County’s Board of Education Post 5, Julia Hurtado, answered questions from the Courier about her campaign and her background.
Hurtado is running to unseat David Banks, who is the Republican incumbent.
Can you talk about your background? Who are you?
Hurtado: I’ve lived in Cobb County for nine years with a family that looks like what Cobb has begun to look like: multiple languages, ethnicities, and religions under one roof. We have more similarities than differences, and we celebrate those differences. I believe the differences among our Cobb schools stakeholders should be celebrated.
I moved to Cobb after earning my Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Emory University. I now practice at the Shepherd Center as a neurologic physical therapist treating adolescent student athletes with concussion. I pride myself in my fierce advocacy for my patients, and I’m eager to bring this commitment to Cobb schools. More than ever, a health scientist’s perspective is needed in conversations deciding policy on school safety, and I’m committed to finding innovative solutions that promote safety without compromising academic excellence. I’m passionate about updating special education and ensuring adequate counseling resources. I care deeply about communication and transparency, and believe that our community deserves to have its elected officials participate in tough conversations that are necessary for change. In my spare time,I enjoy reading and running, and leading my daughter’s Girl Scout troop.
What political issues are most important to you in this day and age regarding Cobb County schools?
Hurtado: Any issue regarding Cobb County schools is important to me because I have a child who attends a Cobb County public school. Any parent knows that at this stage, our entire lives revolve around school. Every decision affects us directly, or affects someone we care about. The issues I hear about the most on the campaign trail are educational equity and pandemic learning. Equity is a budget term: we have to begin with the end in mind and prioritize the most urgent needs of our community. Pandemic learning is challenging because it’s a moving target, but it’s still an issue that needs to be prioritized and continuously reevaluated. This question is asking what the most important political issues are, but I don’t think of safety and efficacy of learning as political issues. Unfortunately, our Board has become so partisan that I suppose these have become political issues, but I’m running as a unity candidate. My goal is to collaborate with Board Members and school stakeholders of different ideologies to ensure that as many perspectives are included in our decision-making as possible.
Why did you and some of your colleagues write a statement condemning racism?
Hurtado: David Banks and the rest of our Board spent the entire summer debating on a proposed resolution to denounce racism, and they ultimately couldn’t agree on anything. My fellow candidates and I were disappointed in their unwillingness to denounce racism, so we decided to show what we thought leadership should look like. Even though we’re all running as Democrats, all four of us have different backgrounds and we range in political ideology. Still, we wanted to show we were capable of doing the right thing. The current Board’s inability to make progress with this important issue shows that they are out-of-touch with the issues facing our schools, and could not do the bare minimum to support our students of color. They’re not supporting their community. We wanted to show every community that their voices matter, and that they deserve to feel safe and valued in our schools.
Is systemic racism an issue in Cobb schools? What problems of systemic racism do you see and how would you work to fix them?
Hurtado: Systemic racism is an issue everywhere. For example, a recent study showed that Black boys as young as ten are perceived to be older, and therefore less innocent, compared to white boys of the same age. This has led to disproportionate discipline. Additionally, Black students are suspended and expelled three times more often than white students, often for the same infractions. It’s not just anti-Black racism that exists in our schools, either; kids are discriminated against because of their nation of origin, the religion they practice, their gender identity, a disability, or the language they speak at home. We must have these conversations and validate these concerns in order to move forward. We need to work to create a cultural change that fosters the proper learning environment for our children. There are many programs available (some at no cost) that focus on anti-bias education. I’d like to support professional development for teachers and update our hiring practices to encourage recruitment through a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s important for all of Cobb students to feel represented by their teachers. Teachers are such valuable role models to our children, and it would be helpful to show that our teachers are well supported and are representative of the students they’re leading.
You’re a neurological physical therapist, what is that and how do you think that has prepared you to become a BOE member?
Hurtado: Physical therapists complete a four-year bachelors program followed by a three-year doctoral program. We then have to pass a licensure exam, as well as an ethics and jurisprudence exam. Physical therapists with experience in an area of specialty can participate in an additional exam to get board certified in that specialty. I both studied for and took my neurologic clinical specialist (NCS) certification exam while I was on maternity leave. Physical therapists treat movement dysfunction, so neurologic physical therapists treat movement dysfunction that results from a problem in the nervous system. I’ve treated patients both young and old with a variety of neurological injuries and neurological diseases. I’ve further specialized in treating dizziness, headaches, and imbalance in traumatic brain injury (like concussions). Most of my patients are student athletes, so it’s my job to advocate for these students. I evaluate my patients by listening to their concerns and performing assessments. I treat their impairments based on current scientific evidence. I educate them on their recovery so that they will need me less and eventually be able to advocate for themselves. My educational background has covered topics such as cognitive development, social and emotional learning, and public health, but I think my most transferable skills include my ability to analyze a problem and find functional solutions, as well as my ability to communicate with our students and make them feel comfortable in knowing that I will do everything I can to support them.
Why do you emphasize the education of special education students? What problems do you see that they face in Cobb County and how would you like to fix those issues?
Hurtado: Cobb County is one of the best places to learn in our state, but we’re in desperate need of an update when it comes to special ed policy in order to ensure that all students have access to high quality education. I would know, I’ve treated several Cobb County students. We need to prioritize early intervention for students requiring IEPs and 504s to ensure that all kids are reading on grade level as soon as possible. We also need to support families who are first learning to navigate this process; it’s not intuitive, and I’d love to set up a peer mentorship program to provide guidance so it’s not so overwhelming. I also want to support teachers who are working towards advanced special education competency. Teachers who don’t have special education competency as a career goal should at least have access to resources to help them get through any barriers that emerge. As a physical therapist, I feel very spoiled when it comes to access to experts and resources; I have speech therapists and occupational therapists on my team. We can set up this kind of team-oriented approach to special ed and communicate in order to get kids what they need.
On your website, you mentioned schools should educate families and employees on safe gun storage at home. Why?
Hurtado: The first time my daughter participated in a Code Red drill as a kindergartener, she came home and told me all about it. She told me she felt like she was good at it because she was “small enough to fit into the best hiding spots.” I grew up in Parkland, Florida, and my husband went to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. At this point, I think we’ve all been touched in some way by gun violence at schools. I understand that these types of drills are a reality, especially if we’re gradually returning to in-person learning. But as a healthcare provider, I don’t want to just treat a problem if it comes up; I want to prevent that problem from happening, if possible. When we conduct fire drills at school, we teach kids about fire safety at home. If we’re going to conduct Code Red drills, we need to do everything we can to prevent needing to use those skills in a real situation.
Why do you think providing counseling to students is so important? What issues do you see students stressed out about?
Hurtado: The purpose of public school is to train our children to become successful members of our society. They learn concepts they’ll need in the adult world and they learn how to think in the adult world. They also learn how to engage with one another and how to cope with the stressors of life. We all can use some support in coping from time to time, but when the brain’s frontal lobe isn’t fully developed until age 25, kids might need support in coping even more. Kids today have more pressure on them than ever before. The patients I see report intense pressure to perform well academically, to be successful in extracurricular activities, to be well-liked among their peers, to meet their parents’ expectations, and to be competitive with college admissions. Some kids also report stress from social media or bullying. I think right now especially, many of us feel stress from pandemic burnout and from the divisive issues facing our country and our community. Counseling can’t solve all of those problems, but they can help teach lifelong skills that can remove emotional barriers that get in the way of learning.
What do you mean by “culturally-relevant curriculum” on your website?
Hurtado: Utilizing culturally relevant curriculum is really just a way of saying that we should help our students connect with the concepts they’re learning about and make it relevant to their life experience. This is something I try to incorporate into my clinical practice so that I can help all of my patients feel validated and empowered. This approach can be even more valuable in a classroom to help students form a more emotional connection to learning and studies have shown this makes the learning more effective.
How do you feel about the school board’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic? Would you do anything differently about the pandemic response when elected?
Hurtado: Where we are right now with COVID-19 is the result of failures of leaders much higher up than our school board. I agree with our virtual start and our gradual reopening; the data supported that. I also agree with the mask mandate, though I wish we could have made it part of the dress code to provide a better enforcement mechanism for this inexpensive and scientifically-proven safety measure. When I take office, I also plan to implement updated protocols for when there are positive cases to quarantine as few people as possible, but as many as necessary. Our current practices are unclear, especially for teachers, who are just as likely to be exposed. We need to make sure that we’re prioritizing the safety of teachers as well as our students.
What issues of transparency are there in Cobb schools and how would you fix those issues?
Hurtado: We have a serious transparency and communication problem. For example, in our monthly Board meetings, Board Members are not even allowed to make comments on the record. Comments from the public are also limited. There is just no communication. When we first started talking about reopening, our current Board, including David Banks, voted against allowing public comments. I’m already doing the work on fixing this. I’m responsive to all of my voters, regardless of whether they agree with me. I plan to hold regular town hall events where stakeholders can express their concerns and ask me questions. I also plan to advocate to have Board Member comments reinstated and to have additional public comments at Board meetings.
How would you advocate for Cobb schools on a statewide level?
Hurtado: I plan on advocating for our schools to state legislators and the state PTA. I also plan to partner with comparable districts to compare metrics and work together towards shared goals.
Some activist groups have been calling for removing police officers from schools. How do you feel about removing police officers from schools? If you do or don’t support it, why? If you do support removing officers, what is the alternative?
Hurtado: School resource officers should be just that: resource officers. I don’t know that they necessarily need to be removed from schools, but we certainly need to rethink how this service is used. Resource officers should be used to keep students and teachers safe, not to enforce discipline.
How do you think you differ best from your opponent besides the obvious political party difference?
Hurtado: Honestly, I don’t even think of the difference in political parties when it comes to myself and David Banks. This is a School Board race, so it isn’t about right or left, it’s about right or wrong. When a constituency outgrows its incumbent, it tends to gravitate towards the opposite of what they had. Post 5 has outgrown David Banks. I think the most important difference is that I have a child currently enrolled in our local public elementary school. I don’t know much about my opponent’s values because he doesn’t share them on his website the way that I have. As a healthcare provider I value empathy and dignity. Observing the way he treats his constituents and his fellow Board members, he doesn’t appear to share these values. How can we expect our children to “play well with others” when supposed leaders like David Banks can’t? The biggest difference between us is that I plan to lead from a place of compassion because I want to create a better world for my daughter, and all of the students in Cobb County.
What do you think of your opponent’s controversial remarks about COVID-19, calling it the “China virus?”
Hurtado: I don’t think it was controversial; I think it was wrong. It was harmful. And I think he knows it was wrong, too, because shortly after he made this racist statement in his newsletter, he released another edition where this comment was redacted, but the damage was already done. Not only does this language spread misinformation about a pandemic that’s already so confusing to begin with, it’s racist and harmful. How can our school district claim to be “One Team” when our leaders blatantly disrespect some members of their own community? Cobb county deserves leaders who represent all of us. Back in August, I asked my opponent what plans he had to right this wrong he committed to the Asian stakeholders in our school system, but I received no response. I reached out to his fellow Board Members asking them to hold him accountable and request his resignation as Vice Chairman; again, no response. The thing about hate is that if you’re not condemning it, you’re normalizing it. You’re tacitly endorsing it. This was not an isolated incident, as my opponent has a pattern of harmful behavior similar to this. Several of his fellow Board Members have a pattern of looking the other way, choosing their comfort over the safety and dignity of their constituents.
What socioeconomic issues do you see within Cobb’s school district? For example, Charisse Davis supported providing children with WiFi and other resources so they can learn virtually. What do you think of some students not having access to certain resources for virtual learning and what do you think the solution is?
Hurtado: I agree with Ms. Davis on this one. We invested in the software (CTLS) before we even had the hardware. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted all of the gaps in our system and highlighted just how much we rely on our public schools for basic needs such as food. We should have anticipated this need. Cobb was able to locate devices for many of our students, but many arrived much later in the semester than they should have if we’d had the foresight to plan ahead. We also need to develop more community partnerships and foster our relationships with our current partners. I believe that Cobb recognizes our schools as one of the most important components of our community, and our community wants to serve our schools. We just need to know what to ask for.
How would you fix the gap in school resources between East and South Cobb schools? To elaborate, some students say that schools in certain parts of Cobb have outdated teaching equipment and some schools bathrooms’ don’t even have doors, whereas other schools in Cobb have recently received new buildings.
Hurtado: Infrastructure is crumbling all over Cobb. It’s unacceptable everywhere. Fiscal responsibility means making sure we’re investing limited resources wisely and efficiently. Folks are tired of seeing their tax dollars being abused, and I want to restore their faith in our ability to get the best results with what we’re given, instead of going back to the taxpayers and asking for more. We have several outstanding projects that are incomplete; why weren’t these prioritized during the summer or when we were exclusively virtual? We need to make sure we’re prioritizing the right projects to make sure that all students have environments that they can learn in.
What do you want voters to know most about you and your campaign?
Hurtado: I’m running an authentic campaign that has room for everyone. Since I first announced my candidacy in January, I’ve had conversations with people regardless of whether we agree, but we’ve been able to find common ground through our love of education and our children. I’m running to build a coalition of community through education because I believe that our schools are the best part of Cobb. I hope that voters have seen how hard I’ve been working for their trust, and how much I care about the future of our schools. I hope that I’ve earned their votes, and I hope that I’ll be able to make them proud once I’m serving them as their Board member.