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In Conversation With Cobb School Board Candidate Laura Judge

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At 7 pm on January 18, 2024 I sat underneath the humming fluorescent lights of the Cobb County School Board building, surrounded by parents, peers, and beige-painted walls. When they called my name, I walked hesitantly toward the center of the room, arrived at the podium, adjusted the mic, and propped my elbows up on the wood, cool to the touch. As I testified, I looked into the eyes of each of my district’s seven Board members, watching as some nodded along as I spoke, and noticing as others squirmed.

For me, and for the over 100,000 students attending Cobb County schools, this Board of elected officials is an oft-overlooked force in each of our lives. Their decisions–from funding to curriculum to education initiatives to school libraries–affects nearly every aspect of our educational journey, arguably the most important facet of each young person’s life up until they graduate high school.

After a year mired in controversy and national coverage, big moments and deceptively unassuming ones, the importance–and power–of the Cobb County school board has never been clearer. A redrawn school board map–created after a judge ruled against the former map, citing concerns of gerrymandering–was passed just a few weeks ago. For Cobb County’s marginalized communities, the new map changed almost nothing. And months after Superintendent Chris Ragsdale banned two books from school libraries after an out-of-state right-wing advocacy group Libs of TikTok requested their removal, the titles have yet to be reinstated, despite extensive backlash from community members.

Cobb County students, taking to social media and to the testimony podium and to local outlets, have begun to see the necessity in engaging with their school board, and the influence young constituents can have on the members’ decisions. A few weeks after I spoke at the meeting, I joined other student organizers from Cobb to talk candidly with board members Leroy Tre’ Hutchins and Nichelle Davis in the meeting room of a local Wellstar, and how we can make our voices heard.

With the November 5th election day looming, we as students–especially as many of us reach voting age–have a duty to know the officials vying for a seat in office, and for our votes. So I sat down with current Democratic Cobb school board hopeful Laura Judge to discuss her candidacy, young voices, and the issues most important to her should she be elected to Post 5, which represents Pope, Wheeler, and Walton High Schools. 

VOX ATL: So, first, I’d love for you to introduce yourself and why you’re running. 

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Judge: My name is Laura Judge. I live in the East Cobb area in the Walton district, and I’m running for the Cobb County School Board, Post Five, which currently covers the Walton, Wheeler, and Pope High School areas. My interest in the schools started around COVID, when I was looking to the district to make a decision. And, as most parents were, I was seeing decisions not happening. And that put a bigger focus on the district and how they ran things, and there were some things I didn’t agree with. I got to the point where I thought I can only complain about things for so long. I looked at fixing them instead.

VOX ATL: Thank you for introducing yourself. And, getting into it, as far as students go, if you were elected, how would you plan to engage student voices and use what students have to say in your decision-making?

Judge: I believe in the role of all the voices in the district. And I think that’s been missing. Student voices shaping educational policies is really important. Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched board meetings where student voices have been ignored and dismissed. And so I want to actively engage students through forums and feedback sessions, where they can express their views and concerns. And then with other board members’ input, I would like to have a student representative at board meetings as well. Because when you foster an environment where the students feel heard and valued, we can make decisions that truly reflect like the needs and aspirations of those most affected by

VOX ATL: How do you plan to uplift the voices of marginalized communities within Cobb, considering the ruling by the federal judge that there was likely gerrymandering in our school board districts?

Judge: Much in the same way as student voices. Having feedback sessions, discussions, and forums for marginalized communities so that everyone feels they have a stake in our public schools. And I also want to be accessible, going into different neighborhoods within the post and encouraging other board members to do the same. That way we can have those communities involved, and we can make more informed and inclusive decisions that reflect the diverse needs of all of our students and families in the district.

VOX ATL: Do you think people’s voices, students’ voices, and marginalized communities’ voices are being uplifted to the extent they should be in the current board?

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Judge: Currently, no. Like I said, I’ve seen students be ignored. I’ve seen the same for marginalized communities. They’ve come, they’ve talked, they’ve asked for feedback. And worse, the majority of the board don’t give answers back. Sometimes they’ll get a phone call or have a listening session where they’ll talk to people for hours. But there is no change in their actions. And for our families and our students to feel heard, they have to see action being taken.

VOX ATL: What is your advice to students looking to make change in our school district, with things like book bans, disability funding, or other issues? What avenues do you advise those students take, and how do you suggest they push for the change in an effective way?

Judge: Currently, I see students doing everything correct. It’s just unfortunate that they don’t have board members that are taking their feelings and their work into consideration in their policies. Speaking at board meetings, writing Op-Eds, holding press conferences, hosting listening sessions—those are all ways that students can be heard. With the primary in May, I’d recommend students engage with the school board members that are running and if the students aren’t of voting age, talk to their friends who are a voting age. But what I can promise is that I’m committed to listening to student concerns. As far as the removal of books in school, I want a transparent process. We have a process in place, and I would like to follow it—have parents able to challenge a book, but also the opportunity to appeal such challenges.

VOX ATL: And if you were to win your post, what is the one thing that you would look to change first as a member of the board?

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Judge: Financial transparency. I got involved early on with a grassroots organization called Watching the Funds Cobb where we look at how the board is spending taxpayer dollars. When it comes to meeting student needs, when it comes to literacy, when it comes to safety, all the big things in my platform, it comes down to the dollar amount. Where is the money coming from? And a lot of parents, students, and staff members don’t know where this money is coming from. I think transparency of where our money’s coming and going, from where our tax dollars are going to where our SPLOST dollars are going, I think it’s really important for the community. It’s necessary to break it down in a way that people can understand in order to build trust. 

VOX ATL: Any final notes on your candidacy?

Judge: My big three. First, financial transparency. Then, the literacy of our students. We are hearing from the state that literacy is a big issue. Here in the Post 5 community, East Cobb, our PTAs and our foundations did a lot to supplement those trainings for our teachers. And then the safety of our students. For me, safety looks like a lot of things. I have been a member of Moms Demand Action, so I talk about gun violence prevention. Training our families about how to secure firearms in their house is important, especially because we live in the South. People own firearms. I myself own a firearm. So by securing those firearms around students, making sure you’re getting the mental health and emotional help that students need, is necessary. 

I care about the students. I have two myself, an elementary school student and a middle school student. I care about the parents because I’m a parent myself. I know how difficult it is to juggle all the things work life, and schooling for your kids. I care about our staff and our teachers, making sure that they have all the things that they need without being attacked by outside forces. And I care about our community. Public schools really go into the betterment of the community as a whole. 

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