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State superintendent election: Jill Underly raised 16 times more than Deborah Kerr in latest period
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ELECTION 2021 | STATE SUPERINTENDENT

State superintendent election: Jill Underly raised 16 times more than Deborah Kerr in latest period

State superintendent candidate Jill Underly raised 16 times more than opponent Deborah Kerr in the latest period ahead of the April 6 election, according to campaign finance reports filed Monday.

Underly raised more than $1.14 million and spent $818,063 between Feb. 2 and March 22, according to her campaign report. Kerr raised more than $71,000 and spent $47,000 in the same timeframe, her campaign reported. Underly overtook Kerr in spending and contributions after Kerr led a crowded field of candidates ahead of the February primary.

Underly received more than $239,000 in campaign contributions from individual donors, while more than $901,000 came from political committees, including $600,000 in cash and $140,000 in in-kind contributions from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

Kerr received more than $66,000 in campaign contributions from individual donors, including $20,000 from GOP megadonor Diane Hendricks and $18,800 from Richard Pieper, founder of the Wisconsin Character Education Partnership. Another $5,000 came from a political action committee supporting former Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

Underly’s biggest expenditures included $35,000 to Victorystore.com to have yard signs printed, $103,558 to Scasey Communications for mailings, media and online advertising, and $462,848 to Strother Nuckels for media consulting fees and television advertisements.

Kerr’s biggest expenditures include $20,069 in consulting fees and $10,486 in legal fees and television-related expenses.

The race for the top education position in Wisconsin, the only statewide contest on the April 6 ballot, has amplified political divisions around public dollars for private and charter school vouchers in a historically nonpartisan election, the effect of Act 10 on teachers and unions, as well as the effort to get students back into classrooms amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the nonpartisan nature of the race, Underly has received endorsements from the state’s largest teachers union and the Wisconsin Democratic Party while Kerr has garnered Republican financial backers and support, including an endorsement from former Gov. Scott Walker.

In forums and interviews, Underly has said she would like to leave the decision to return students to classrooms amid the COVID-19 pandemic up to districts while considering a possible early start to the 2021-22 school year — if the district chooses to go that route — to make up for lost learning time. Kerr has said she would like to return all students to classrooms as quickly and safely as possible with virus mitigation efforts in place.

In regard to private school vouchers, Democrats have long argued the program diverts tax dollars from public schools to help students attend private school and has increased pressure on public school districts to turn to referendums for operating funds. Republicans say the voucher program provides options for families who are unable to afford private schools and their students who might be struggling in a public district.

In forums leading up to the election, Kerr has said she supports school vouchers and wants to bring the two parties together to find a funding solution, while Underly, who said she is “100% unapologetically pro-public schools,” has called for a freeze in enrollment in the school voucher program, an effort former state superintendent and current Gov. Tony Evers tried unsuccessfully to pass with his first biennial budget.

And, the two candidates clashed on the effect of Act 10, Walker’s 2011 law that effectively ended collective bargaining for public sector unions, on public schools across the state. Underly said the legislation caused districts to turn to referendums year after year for operating funds, while Kerr said she was able to use the legislation to save money in the Brown Deer School District.

Drama on the campaign trail

The weeks leading up to the April 6 election have featured a series of broadsides from each campaign.

The day after Underly and Kerr advanced in the February primary, Kerr drew criticism after she tweeted about being called the N-word in high school, saying “my lips were bigger than most and that was the reference given to me.” Kerr, who is white, apologized and deleted her Twitter account the next day. By the end of that week her campaign manager and attorney quit.

In March, Underly’s campaign aired an ad criticizing Kerr for writing a letter of recommendation for a finance manager who had overdrawn the district’s bank accounts by about $500,000 back in 2009.

Kerr’s campaign fired back and called Underly a hypocrite for sending her children to a private 4K school, but positioning her campaign against private school vouchers.

A week later, the Wisconsin State Journal obtained records that showed Kerr using her district email address to help start her private consulting firm. The State Journal also obtained records that showed Underly used her district email address to build her campaign contact list.

On Monday, the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission against Underly. In the complaint, the Wisconsin GOP asked the commission to begin an investigation into Underly’s use of her Pecatonica School District email address to collect contact information from other superintendents two weeks ahead of publicly launching her campaign.

Kerr’s campaign had previously said it would not file a complaint against Underly for using her school district email address.

The state superintendent seat is open for the first time in more than a decade after Evers, who won statewide elections to head the agency for three consecutive four-year terms, assumed Wisconsin’s highest office. Current state Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor was appointed by Evers in January 2019 after he won the 2018 governor’s race. She did not seek election this year.


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