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Deborah Kerr leads in state superintendent fundraising, spending

Deborah Kerr leads in state superintendent fundraising, spending


State superintendent candidate Deborah Kerr, who supports the private school choice program and has won Republican backing across the state, raised and spent more money than any of the other six candidates in January, which was the last campaign finance reporting period before next week’s primary.

The two highest vote-getters in the Feb. 16 primary will advance to the April 6 general election. The race is officially nonpartisan, but the campaign finance reports help shed light on partisan support the candidates receive, largely due to their positions on hot-button education issues such as private school vouchers.

Kerr, the former Brown Deer Schools superintendent, is one of two candidates who backs the school choice program. That program, championed in recent years by Republicans, has long been a litmus test in races for state superintendent.

Kerr raised just over $28,000 in January and spent about $58,500, the report filed late Monday with the state shows. She had nearly $20,000 cash on hand in the two weeks before the primary.

Her report shows a $15,000 contribution from Arthur Dantchik, a conservative mega-donor from Pennsylvania who has given nearly $147,000 to Republican candidates in Wisconsin over the past decade, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Sheila Briggs, an assistant state superintendent, raised the second most in January, at just over $19,400. She had about $30,500 cash on hand. Jill Underly, the superintendent at Pecatonica Area School District, raised nearly $18,000 and had about $30,200 cash on hand.

Both Briggs and Underly are critics of the voucher program. Underly’s vocal opposition to it helped win her the endorsement of the statewide teachers’ union in January. And just after the reporting deadline, the Wisconsin State Education Association PAC reported giving Underly’s campaign $18,000.

According to other candidate spending reports:

  • Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams raised about $12,400 and had $2,200 cash on hand. She is the other candidate who backs the school choice program. Hendricks-Williams is a former state education department employee and special education teacher from Milwaukee, with 25 years’ experience in education.
  • Troy Gunderson, an adjunct professor at Viterbo University in La Crosse and former West Salem superintendent, raised $11,750 and had just over $20,000 cash on hand.
  • Joe Fenrich, a Fond du Lac High School science teacher for 15 years, raised about $3,100 and had more than $7,800 cash on hand.
  • Steve Krull, a principal at a Milwaukee Public Schools elementary school, raised nearly $1,100 and had almost $2,200 cash on hand.

Endorsements spread out

Underly, Briggs, Hendricks-Williams and Kerr have each received dozens of endorsements or recommendations from educators, elected officials, community members and leaders.

Kerr received endorsements from educators, business leaders and elected officials such as school board members and various presidents and vice presidents of a number of businesses.

Briggs received endorsements from educators, community members and election officials outside of Wisconsin, including a former Louisiana state superintendent, and a former chief of staff to a U.S. Secretary of Education.

In addition to WEAC, Underly garnered endorsements from two former state superintendents and one assistant state superintendent.

Hendricks-Williams touted endorsements from a number of community members from parents and grandparents to elected leaders including members of the Milwaukee Public School Board.

Gunderson received endorsements from elected officials such as U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse.

“Both fundraising and endorsements are signs of a candidate’s potential, but in different ways,” Barry Burden, political scientist and professor at UW-Madison said.

Fundraising reveals the ability of a campaign to reach voters effectively through advertisements and other means. A campaign without enough money to do essential outreach to voters is going to struggle to deliver its message, he said.

Funds that come from small donors around the state can also demonstrate the range of public support for a candidate.

Endorsements serve a couple of different purposes, Burden said.

Like a campaign that raises many small donations, a wide variety of endorsements from stakeholders and community members can demonstrate a breadth of support from people who know the candidate.

Endorsements can also signal the ability of a candidate to be effective in office. Having support from state legislators and school officials speaks to the credibility of the candidate as a potential administrator and policy maker, Burden said.

State Journal reporter Elizabeth Beyer contributed to this report.


Watch the candidates for state superintendent in the Feb. 16 primary

Seven candidates are vying to advance from the Feb. 16 primary to the April 6 general election.

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