Kerr and Underly to vie for state superintendent position

By: - February 17, 2021 12:26 am
children at school looking at a computer

Children at school (photo by Lucélia Ribeiro, Creative Commons sharealike 2.0)

Jill Underly and Deborah Kerr came out of a seven-way primary to advance to the April 6 general election for Wisconsin state superintendent of education. The two women, both experienced school district superintendents, will make their case to voters that they are the best person to lead Wisconsin’s more than 2,000 schools through a pandemic.

Current Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor, appointed by Gov. Tony Evers after he left the position to become governor, is not seeking another term. 

With nearly all precincts reporting, Underly, the Pecatonica Area School District superintendent, had received 27% of the vote (88,900 votes). Kerr, a retired Brown Deer superintendent, received 26% (86,045 votes). 

The other candidates divided up the votes as follows: Sheila Briggs, assistant state school superintendent (15%); Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams, director of Gov. Tony Evers’ Milwaukee office (11%); Troy Gunderson, retired West Salem School District superintendent (8%) and Joe Fenrick, a high school science teacher from Fond du Lac (4%).

Jill Underly
Jill Underly (via Facebook)

Underly was the only candidate serving as a superintendent during the COVID-19 pandemic. She came into the primary with a big boost of an endorsement and an $18,000 contribution from the state’s largest teachers’ union, Wisconsin Educational Association Council (WEAC). 

Underly has emphasized the importance of early childhood education and broadband for cities and rural areas. Her endorsement from WEAC and many progressives is based, at least in part, on her staunch opposition to public funding for vouchers and non-district charter schools. 

“We now face a choice: Elect someone who wants to make sure every student has a great school and real opportunity, or someone who wants to divide us, waste our precious resources and pick winners and losers among our students,” Underly wrote in a statement after the results were released. “I am the candidate that is firmly on the side of children in our schools, our students’ parents and our educators.”

Underly tells Wisconsin Examiner she is “elated” at the news that she will advance to the general election.

“I am just going to say it’s about our kids, Wisconsin kids, first and foremost,” says Underly.  “We know right now that’s not happening — focusing on what kids need.”

Underly says she watched Evers’ online budget address tonight while her son was doing his homework. 

“I was really excited about it. His focus has always been what is best for kids is best for the state, and we are talking about equity and opportunity,” she says.


She hopes to lead the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) in a way that the agency can “be a partner with the governor and the Legislature.” 

Kerr, is the former superintendent of the Brown Deer school district, which is 80% students of color. After students in her district experienced racial harassment at sporting events, she helped develop an anti-discrimination policy for the WIAA. She has served in a number of roles in both private and public schools.

Deb Kerr
Deb Kerr (via Facebook)

Kerr was the top fundraiser in the seven-way primary. According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, she received a campaign contribution from Friends of Alberta Darling. Sen. Darling (R-River Hills) has championed funding for vouchers and non-district charter schools. While the race is nonpartisan, Kerr is widely viewed as the more conservative candidate. But she made a broad pitch in her statement released after she emerged from the primary. 

“Voters from across Wisconsin heard our message and they said the same: ‘There is no room for politics in education.’ From the start of this campaign, I said that I was going to bring everyone to the table to advocate for every child,” said Kerr. “Throughout the campaign we had Democrats, Republicans, and Independents join our broad coalition to make this possible. Wisconsin is ready to move forward and create a world-class education system.” 



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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.