Wisconsin superintendent candidates spar over campaign ad

Deborah Kerr, Jill Underly
Pictured (L to R): Deborah Kerr, Jill Underly

MADISON, Wis. — The conservative-backed candidate to become Wisconsin’s top education official called on her Democratic-backed opponent to apologize for and denounce her television ad running statewide, a heated flashpoint during a virtual debate broadcast Wednesday.

Former Brown Deer Superintendent Deb Kerr and Pecatonica Superintendent Jill Underly also sparred over how to best emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, the future of taxpayer funded voucher schools and whether the state Department of Public Instruction needs to be dismantled.

The most contentious moment came when Underly brought up a financial scandal at Kerr’s district, which Underly also raised during her first statewide television ad that began airing this week. In the ad, Underly said Kerr can’t be trusted because of the scandal that broke in 2009, which she accused her of trying to cover up.

Kerr kept the district’s business manager on the payroll for 17 months after he overdrew the Brown Deer school district’s bank accounts by nearly $500,000. Kerr later wrote a letter of recommendation for the business manager when he sought another job.

“She supposedly fired a business manager, but then he got moved on to a glowing recommendation of hers,” Underly said Wednesday.

Kerr interrupted her.

“Let’s stop this right now,” she said. “You need to denounce this ad. … Anyone who knows how to run an HR organization knows there are certain Gordian knot problems you have in dealing with personnel. The letter of recommendation was part of a standard HR procedure.”

Kerr initially recommended firing the official but never held a hearing on the allegations. The school board never voted to terminate his contract. The official resigned for another job in Illinois, resulting in Kerr’s letter of recommendation, but the district withdrew the job offer after learning of the problems in Brown Deer.

The official took Brown Deer to court, accusing the district of breach of contract and interfering with his future employment opportunities, but courts rejected the lawsuits.

“You don’t know the details of any kind of agreement that was negotiated and agreed upon,” Kerr said to Underly. “I think you need to apologize for that.”

Underly did not apologize.

Kerr touted her plan to dismantle the state education department, which is based in Madison, saying it needs to be reorganized as a customer service agency. Underly said Kerr doesn’t understand how expensive that would be and it’s another example of her “not understanding how to financially manage a large budget.”

Kerr said moving parts of the department to Milwaukee would better help it serve students in the voucher program, the largest number of which are in that city. Kerr is a proponent of the program, while Underly supports freezing enrollment, calling the program unaccountable and too expensive.

Underly touted her experience in leading the rural Pecatonica district through the pandemic, while Kerr emphasized her call for all schools to be open for in-person teaching five days a week.

Kerr accused Underly of being beholden to the state teachers union, which has endorsed her campaign. Underly rejected the charge.

“I’m not beholden to anybody,” she said. “Unions support me because I’m pro-teacher and being pro-teacher means being pro kid.”

The race is officially nonpartisan, but conservatives, including former Gov. Scott Walker, have largely lined up behind Kerr. Underly has the backing of every Democratic member of the state’s Congressional delegation, former Gov. Jim Doyle and more than two dozen current or former Democratic members of the Legislature.

Outside money is also pouring into the race with the election less than three weeks off.

The liberal group A Better Wisconsin Together and the statewide teachers union, Wisconsin Education Association Council, have spent more than $481,000 combined to support Underly or oppose Kerr, according to a tally by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

The American Federation for Children, a pro-school voucher group, has spent $56,500 to oppose Underly, the Democracy Campaign said.

Wednesday’s debate was hosted by the Marquette University Law School and College of Education. It was recorded Tuesday and broadcast for the first time Wednesday.

The winner of the April 6 election will replace Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who took over as state superintendent in 2019 but declined to seek a full term.