What you need to know about the candidates in the 7-way school superintendent primary

By: - February 9, 2021 6:45 am
Vote Here sign in front of school crossing sign

Election Day 2020 by Phil Roeder via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Wisconsin’s public schools face multiple crises: dire funding shortfalls, some of the nation’s worst racial disparities, a global pandemic that disproportionately kills people of color, a state Legislature prioritizing private voucher schools while disregarding COVID-19 prevention measures, vaccine shortfalls, creeping privatization.

In light of all that: Who wants to be in charge of more than 2,000 schools in Wisconsin? We’re hiring a new state superintendent on April 6.

Seven candidates will be on the ballot for a statewide primary on Feb. 16, and Wisconsin voters will narrow the field to two for April’s general election. The group includes seven experienced teachers, principals, administrators and advocates, all working to define their vision for leading the state’s schools out of a pandemic and safely into classrooms while building a more equitable future. 

State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor, appointed after longtime state superintendent Tony Evers was elected governor, is not seeking another term. 

The candidates include:

  • Sheila Briggs, an assistant state school superintendent
  • Joe Fenrick, a high school science teacher from Fond du Lac
  • Troy Gunderson, retired West Salem School District superintendent
  • Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams, director of Gov. Tony Evers’ Milwaukee office
  • Deborah Kerr, retired Brown Deer superintendent
  • Steve Krull, principal of Garland Elementary School in Milwaukee 
  • Jill Underly, Pecatonica Area School District superintendent

Defending public education

The superintendent race is not likely to be at the top of everyone’s radar right now, says Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of Wisconsin Public Education Network (WPEN).  But now that some big endorsements have happened, including Jill Underly securing the backing of the Wisconsin Educational Association Council (WEAC), she hopes people will be engaged in choosing our top educator.

“The fact that the state’s largest educators’ association has endorsed one of the candidates now, I think will probably help a lot of voters wake up and start paying more attention and some of the other candidates might turn up the volume a little bit to be heard over that noise.”

School funding lies at the root of many issues, says Bourenane, and Wisconsin needs a superintendent who is willing to fight hard to break the cycle of shrinking budgets and siphoning money to private schools and charters. WPEN asked all the candidates to sign a pledge to #votepublic, which includes supporting a moratorium on vouchers and independent, non-district charter spending; all the candidates signed the pledge.  

“I think the candidates are really trying hard at this stage in the race to demonstrate how their particular experience equips them to be the person best suited to tackle what is probably the biggest challenge for the head of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI): ensuring that our schools have the resources that they need to provide for the needs of every child,” says Bourenane.

Woman marching against Act 10 with group at UWM, her sign reads Save Our Schools
Save Our Schools by marctasman via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Wisconsin’s Legislature has proven it is “unwilling to invest in closing Wisconsin’s gaps,” she says. “Again and again, it belligerently invests in making them wider budget after budget.” She points to a Groundhog Day letter from the co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee warning Gov. Evers that the GOP will challenge his budget authority. Evers has stated he would like to use a state budget surplus on education. Another issue that all the candidates agree on is that Wisconsin’s special education system is broken. Currently, the state only reimburses between 25-30% of districts’ costs for special ed.

“It’s absolutely unconscionable that they wouldn’t take this moment to reflect on some of the deficits that they’ve created at the school level, across the state and take the recommendations of their own committees in trying to close those gaps,” says Bourenane. The DPI chief has to be both a “task master” and a “bridge builder,” she adds. “What I hear when I’m listening to the state superintendent candidates is people who are trying to audition for that role and who want us to see them as people who aren’t going to be afraid to fight that fight, who are going to stand up for what kids need.”

Kim Kohlhaas, president of American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin, says that the statewide union, which represents K-12 elementary teachers and technical college and university staff, has not made an endorsement in the race. But she praises the field of candidates for keeping racial and economic inequities at the top of their priority lists.

“I think COVID has highlighted the disparities within our system and they need to be addressed, says Kohlhaas. “We can’t keep pushing this down the road. We’ve had conversations about this for the past 20 years about public education, and the funding is not adequate.”

The state superintendent, notes Kohlhaas, also sits on the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. “They will be in a position to have an impact on what happens with the UW system, which impacts our members,” she adds. 

Kohlhaas says higher education institutions in Wisconsin face funding crises similar to K-12 schools, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. “The structure is such that we’re seeing the disparities during the pandemic,” she says. “Broadband is a huge issue, even for our university system. It’s not acceptable to just say we’re going to be virtual and be okay with it. Virtual instruction is complex. And we have to figure out what is it that we value and how are we going to do it well?” 

The pandemic, she adds, has also brought into focus the reality that schools are much more than just classrooms for instruction. “We provide food services, we provide mental health support. We provide medical treatment first for our students,” she says. “The athletics programs, the arts, the enrichment programs. That’s what we’re lacking. The instruction is still happening, whether we’re doing it through virtual instruction, in-person instruction or hybrid, But it’s all of the other enrichment stuff that makes you a well-rounded, healthy human being.”

To help distinguish between the seven candidates, the following includes some highlights from the seven candidates’ talking points, endorsements and campaigns’ fundraising and spending.

Deborah Kerr

Kerr has raised more than $69,000 for her campaign and is the top fundraiser in the race. She is taking some heat from progressives after accepting $1,000 from “Friends of Alberta Darling.” Sen. Darling (R-River Hills) has been a friend of pro-privatization forces, and has led the state in clearing the path for vouchers and non-district charter schools. 

Kerr has a track record of fighting for students during her 40-year career in education, including time spent in urban, suburban, rural and private schools. She spent 13 years as the superintendent of the Brown Deer school district, which includes 80% students of color. After students in her district experienced racial harassment at sport events, she helped develop an anti-discrimination policy for the WIAA. Kerr helped create a 7-point call to action to address the issue.

Sheila Briggs

Sheila Briggs, currently serving as the assistant state superintendent, has a 30-year career in the schools, beginning as a kindergarten teacher and later overseeing all of Madison’s elementary principals. Her campaign priorities are to secure a budget that reimburses districts for at least 60% of special education costs and closing “opportunity gaps” that exacerbate inequities in our schools. At one Milwaukee forum, she said funding should be based on students’ needs, not on “the amount of property wealth behind a kid.” 

Briggs follows Kerr in the fundraising department. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported that by the end of 2020, she had raised more than $53,000. She has some progressive heft behind her campaign, including endorsements from a number of tribal educators; Ananda Mirilli, from the Madison school board, and Tony Baez from Milwaukee. 

Jill Underly

Underly, the superintendent in the Pecatonica school district, is shaping up to be a favorite of progressives. She has secured the endorsement of WEAC, the state’s largest teachers’ union. Wisconsin Democracy Campaign shows her as one of the top three fundraisers in the race, having raised more than $38,000. According to WisPolitics.com, she also received $18,000 from WEAC’s political action campaign and the progressive political arm  A Better Wisconsin Together has supported Underly with a digital ad buy of $78,210.

Her campaign website also lists endorsements from numerous Democratic state legislators; John Matthews, longtime director of Madison Teachers Inc.; and a host of school board members, superintendents and principals. Dr. Julie Underwood, former Dean of UW-Madison’s education school, has also thrown her support behind Underly, calling her “a champion of our public schools” who “will never cave to the privatization lobby.”

Underly is clearly seeking the progressive vote. Her platform reads: “I think that private schools that accept public dollars should be in the same accountability system as public schools….they should have the same accountability report cards as public schools and districts.”

Underly’s refrain is that schools should have equal access to “adequate and fair funding,” including expanding early childhood education, “no matter their zip code.”, She is also prioritizing mental and emotional wellness resources, and, as a rural superintendent, broadband access.

Troy Gunderson

Next on the fundraising chart is Troy Gunderson, the retired superintendent from West Salem. Gunderson has raised at least $20,000, most of it from small donors, including many educators and businesspeople in the western part of the state. 

He has also focused on issues of equity and funding, writing in a questionnaire distributed by WEAC that he has visited more than 60 school districts across the state and used those visits to help shape a platform for building a more equitable, world-class education system. “From Superior to Milwaukee, school districts across our state clamor for leadership,” he wrote, adding that he would push for universal full-day kindergarten and preschool programs. He also wants to invest in teacher education and recruitment. 

Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams

Dr. Hendricks-Williams says that her experience of raising a son with disabilities and a daughter who is gifted and talented prepare her to understand the many different “educational journeys” of students. 

She has earned her doctorate in education. In a fascinating twist, candidate Kerr challenged Hendricks-Williams’ candidacy with the state Elections Commission for filing nomination papers with “Dr.” in front of her name; state statute forbids using abbreviations or titles at the top of nomination papers. Hendricks-Williams was able to stay on the ballot.

She also has worked in many aspects of education: paraprofessional, special education teacher, assistant principal, principal, district administrator and adjunct faculty member. She told WPEN, “Along this career trajectory, I have seen first hand the good, the bad and the ugly. I know what can happen for our students when they are given their inalienable rights to a fully funded, well rounded education. I will use my relentless drive to leverage change toward the goal of creating equitable opportunities so that each Wisconsin student receives a premier education.” She has crafted a “Bill of Rights for Wisconsin Students.”

Hendricks-Williams has raised a little more than $18,000, mostly from small donors, and garnered myriad endorsements, including many from Black and brown community leaders in Milwaukee. Former Milwaukee school superintendent Howard Fuller, who is known as one of the architects of the voucher movement, has endorsed her. If she survives the primary, his support could signal another campaign where pro-privatization dollars might wind up.

Joe Fenrick

Joe Fenrick, a high school science teacher in Fond du Lac, is probably a longshot, as he hasn’t spent much time in administrative offices. But he is a teacher, geology lecturer and parent, and the candidate who speaks most passionately against standardized testing. “As the Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction, I would do everything in my power to reduce the amount of standardized tests that our children take,” Fenrick writes on his website. We need our schools focusing on developing curriculum that give students a chance to enhance their skills, that promote elective classes, the fine arts, robotics, and technical education.”

Fenrick has raised about $8,000 and had spent only $30 on his campaign by the end of 2020.

Steve Krull

Krull, a principal at Garland Elementary in Milwaukee, is an Air Force veteran who says he has  a track record of connecting with students and staff. He frequently mentions that Wisconsin’s schools are “crumbling,” and has the most radical proposal for solving the school funding crisis: He wants to shift the funding model away from property taxes to funding supplied by state government. 

Krull has raised just $3,464, and spent just $1,000, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Note: This story was corrected on Feb. 9 to reflect that the challenge to Dr. Hendricks-Williams’ nomination papers was because state statute forbids using abbreviations or titles at the top of nomination papers, not because the honorific is reserved for medical doctors. Also, the contribution Anupam Mishra made to Sheila Briggs’ campaign came after he no longer worked for Aspire Public Schools.  

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Catherine Capellaro
Catherine Capellaro

Catherine Capellaro is a freelance writer and the arts and culture editor for Isthmus in Madison, Wisconsin. She is also the former managing editor of Rethinking Schools, a former anchor and reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio and WORT-89.9 FM and an accomplished playwright and musician.

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