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April 16, 2021

4/2/2021 9:02:00 AM
Underly, Kerr run for Wisconsin State Superintendent for Public Instruction

During the Feb. 16 primary election, voters selected Jill Underly, the current Pecatonica Area School District Superintendent, and Deborah Kerr, former Brown Deer School District superintendent, as the top two contenders for Wisconsin State Superintendent for Public Instruction. Voters will determine the winning candidate during the April 6 election.
The candidates answered questions about their platforms.
Why are you the best candidate for the position?
Underly: I have dedicated my life to public education with over 20 years of experience in every facet of public education. I have experience as a teacher, as a principal, as a university advisor, and as a Department of Public Instruction leader. I have the strongest and broadest qualifications with over two decades of experience and am ready to lead DPI on day one. My focus is making sure every child has what they need to succeed every day, no matter where they are coming from.
Additionally, I have a strong record of sound financial management of my district, unlike my opponent who tried to cover up a financial scandal that cost her district hundreds of thousands of dollars. Wisconsin's kids deserve better than that, and I'm ready to get to work for our kids on day one.
Kerr: I am uniquely qualified to serve as the State Superintendent in these unprecedented times. My passion and experience serving children in all education sectors for the past forty years has prepared me well. I have walked many miles in teacher's and leader's shoes and served as a public school superintendent for the past twenty years. My experiences at the local, state and national levels have prepared me at a time when our students are facing enormous learning losses, especially our black and brown children from rural, suburban, and urban areas.
As superintendent in Brown Deer, serving 1600 students: 80% students of color, 50% economically disadvantaged, and 23 languages, we successfully closed the achievement gap while raising the graduation rates for all students. The student centered strategies we put into action to achieve these transformational results are scalable across the state to address the deleterious impact of the pandemic.
I have inspired others into the profession. I am a visionary leader of leaders, honored to have served as President of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators (WASDA) and the President of the 13,000 member American Association of School Administrators (AASA). I have been the voice of public school district Superintendent leaders at the local, state, and national levels and will continue to do so after elected.
What would your top priorities be as Wisconsin State Superintendent for Public Instruction?
Underly: My platform is rooted in equity and getting every child what they need, every day. Rural and urban schools especially need more help, and I'm the only candidate currently leading a district through the pandemic and the only candidate with meaningful experience in both rural and urban districts.
This means prioritizing:
• Early childhood education and universal 4K access
• Teacher recruitment and retention
• Mental health and health supports
• School funding formula revision
• Facilities improvement, particularly infrastructure & HVAC in aging buildings
The heart of all of this is the school funding formula revision, and my overarching goal is to repair the formula or replace it all together so that it is equitable for all students, regardless of their zip code. I would also advocate for a separate stream of funding to repair and/or replace aging facilities in communities that have not been able to raise the revenue to improve their school buildings.
We also need sound fiscal management. I have balanced budgets and currently lead a district to high-achieving results. My opponent kept an employee who cost her district hundreds of thousands of dollars on the payroll for more than a year while he did not work and then unbelievably wrote him a glowing recommendation, resulting in drawn-out, costly litigation in two different districts. You can count on me to have better judgement.
Kerr: A year ago, we could have never imagined where we would be today and what we have experienced as a result of the global pandemic. We will start by committing to reengaging the students who have left us or fallen through the cracks during the pandemic. The main challenges of our public schools right now are as follows:
First and foremost, it's time to get our children safely back in our schools. We not only need to get back to educating our children face-to-face but my team and I will work with all stakeholders to develop and implement a state-wide recovery plan to address significant learning loss and inequities that have been exacerbated by this pandemic (such as robust internet access, tech devices, and food).
Second, in collaboration with our stakeholders, we will create a new approach to our work called "Our Wisconsin Promise." Our promise will be a renewed commitment to our learners that every child will be known by name, their strengths, and passion, their need, and be ready for career and/or college.
Third, our children need a consistent and effective approach to the teaching of reading and math across the state. My diverse leadership cabinet will first provide a reading roadmap based upon the science of reading while also valuing the success of districts across the state in the teaching of literacy and reading across the content areas. Using evidenced-based practices we will plan a three-year timeline, then offer three articulated models in Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 3 in both reading and math for schools or districts.
Fourth, education is the key to economic growth and prosperity. We will "connect the dots" between schools and business/industry partnerships, filling the employment pipeline with skilled workers straight from our schools. We will commit that every learner will have a strengths-based pathway and entry into the meaningful world of work, and/or pursuing post-secondary education. Equitable opportunities will allow all students to choose a learning pathway based on their strengths and passion to ensure success for all students.
What do you believe are the top education funding priorities? How would you advance education funding priorities?
Underly: Our school funding formula is broken. Currently, the state reimburses only 30% of the cost for special education and only 4% for English language learners, which causes significant budget shortfalls for schools that have a high number of students in either category. A lot of Wisconsin's schools do not have school nurses, reading specialists, gifted and talented coordinators, or school psychologists because they cannot afford them. Many schools are facing crumbling infrastructure. Meanwhile, schools in areas with higher property values and growing populations are building cathedrals to learning with beautiful athletic "complexes" and industrial arts centers. All kids deserve all of these things, but our current system of school finance certainly creates a system of winners and losers, and it's simply not right. Public schools are supposed to be the great equalizers, and we have to take action to fulfill that purpose.
Kerr: With the largest achievement gaps in the country growing due to COVID-19, there is great urgency to invest and restore educational funding for our schools. Even though the Wisconsin school funding was lauded across the country as one of the best in social justice and equity, it's difficult to change the formula without creating winners and losers. However, I believe there are some creative ways to adjust the funding formula in order to stabilize all of Wisconsin's public K-12 schools. With COVID-19, per-pupil adjustments must also be made to hold school districts harmless while dealing with significant enrollment shifts many Wisconsin districts experienced this fall.
First, I would focus on increased reimbursement for children with disabilities as brought forth by the 2018 Blue Ribbon Task Force and requested by State Superintendent Taylor in her most recent budget request. The Brown Deer School District passed a board resolution to reimburse IDEA at 90% as we had above the state average of children with disabilities. This funding priority state-wide would reduce the transfer of thousands of dollars back to Fund 10 that would enable districts to allocate those funds in just the right places needed most in their districts. This is an equity proposition that would serve all districts well.
Secondly, our English Language Learners have been left behind in many ways due to the lack of state and federal funding. In Brown Deer, we served over 26 languages and utilized Title allocations and other federal funding to support our students. With increased reimbursement of special education funding dollars could be redistributed to our ELL students to best support their needs.
In order to better understand how funds are currently allocated at the DPI, we will need to conduct an equity audit of programs, models, and policies that leverage resources for the greatest impact. We will then identify a long term, equitable, and sustainable plan that focuses on only those approaches with a strong evidence base and support high-quality implementation measures through training and technical assistance by DPI staff. Putting our resources in just the right places to meet the needs of our children, families, and staff must be the priority. The budget must reflect the current needs of our students. Our federal funding seems low as compared to other states, so I wonder if we are missing out on opportunities at the federal level to capture funding for our most vulnerable students?
Third, I would leverage and support state and federal advocacy that flexibly supports the unique needs of rural schools, including REAP, Impact Aid and forest counties, robust internet access using eRate reimbursements, and mental health services to name a few. Children with unmet mental health and trauma is an area that needs our utmost attention. Wisconsin needs a leader that will address the rising and significant mental health needs among students, staff, parents, and community and advocate for financial resources at all levels to address the consequences of this global pandemic. We need to pool all of our resources to advocate for additional mental health funding to provide services, staffing, and other resources for our school communities. Grant programs, while appreciated, do not serve the communities that need financial support the most.
Additionally, I believe one of the ways in which we are going to recover from the calamities of COVID-19 is to leverage community partners and resources to better serve all children and families. A very impressive community outreach and collaboration model is the Strive Together-Every Child, Cradle to Career. This group has a national network of communities across the country and in Brown County, Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha, working together to create access and opportunities for racial equity and economic mobility.
We can learn from these groups as we rethink how our communities can better support our schools and families. We will need to align all resources in our communities to ensure that all children and families are well served. We will need to find creative ways with limited resources to engage families as valued partners in supporting their child's learning. It will "take a village" approach to come together and unify resources, time, talent, and purpose.
How might you best serve all students?
Underly: The inequities that we see currently during the pandemic (lacking affordable broadband and other technology gaps, mental health access, staffing shortages, lack of daycare or early childhood access, antiquated facilities and HVAC systems, and academic achievement concerns) - these all existed pre-pandemic. The pandemic has exacerbated these inequities. The first step I would take is advocate for more federal and state funding to get to the schools with the biggest needs: the highest-poverty rural and urban schools. I believe that if we can expand 4K access to be full day, every day, we can begin to tackle the opportunity gaps for high-poverty students, English language learners, and special education students very early in a child's educational career. I will work with our UW System, unions, and other stakeholders to attack the issue of teacher shortages. We need better facilities, too, if we want to continue to provide a 21st-century education in our state, and I would recommend policies and initiatives to the legislature to work on the issue of our aging infrastructure, collaboratively.
Kerrr: I believe the State Superintendent's job is working relentlessly to ensure that every child's dreams and aspirations are within their grasp. I will champion all of Wisconsin's children and serve them joyfully. Working in partnership with all stakeholders, we will make Wisconsin a world-class education system that is the highest performing in the country. Education is a nonpartisan matter as each child is deserving!
My entire platform addresses equity through excellence. We can and will ensure success for all students by creating a learning culture of high expectations with rigorous and relevant learning opportunities that reflect the real world, focusing on the NEEDS of our learner. We will build off this success by creating schools that prioritize character education with rich social-emotional and mental health supports. We will foster and celebrate innovations in our Wisconsin schools. We will foster non-traditional partnerships in our school communities and find creative ways to engage our families as valued partners to support their children's learning. "Our Wisconsin Promise" is child-centered and honors all educators so that our students, no matter where they come from, are joyfully served to be well prepared for success in life after high school and contribute to our citizenry.
How might you obtain better broadband width and higher internet speed for rural students?
Underly: I live in rural Wisconsin and run a rural district, which is experience my opponent does not have. I deal every day with the struggles of lacking reliable and affordable high-speed internet firsthand. The current dearth of rural broadband access is unacceptable, and it's especially harmful to our students. This was a problem before the pandemic, but it's only been made more critical by the shift to virtual or hybrid learning and the growing reliance on technology in our schools.
I would work with the governor's office and the legislature to advocate for affordable broadband and wireless internet access to our rural and urban areas and other areas that don't have access. I fully support the governor's proposal from January to quadruple funding for broadband access expansion. I believe this is an issue that needs to be addressed and it's one that has bipartisan support. I'll be ready on day one to support these efforts and I'm excited to get to work.
Kerr: The pandemic has shined a spotlight on the inequities in our state, particularly when it comes to a student's ability to access uninterrupted broadband, WiFi and technology. I am well aware of the state's attempts to understand broadband access and connectivity across the state to ensure our students' are able to learn, pandemic or not. As State Superintendent, I will continue the work I have been doing at a national level in my role as immediate past president of the Association of Association of School
Administrators (AASA) to leverage additional resources for technology by expanding reimbursable E-Rate. In addition, as access to technology and broadband is one of my highest priorities for our students, I will make certain that it is well supported by appointing a Cabinet level position to work with all stakeholders in all sectors to make access for ALL a reality. Broadband and device access is an issue of equity that should be considered a public utility.
As we have all learned in the midst of this pandemic, the educational technology landscape is continuously innovating and changing, and we must provide opportunities for our educators to continuously grow. As your State Superintendent, I will make this a priority.
How would you handle the ongoing pandemic?
Underly: Let me make one thing clear, I want our schools open. I want our kids back in the classroom. We know the harm that this pandemic has had on students, and we absolutely need to get our schools open to in-person learning as soon as it's safe to do so.
My rural district has been open for in-person learning, and that's worked for us. For many urban districts, it simply wouldn't yet work because their buildings would simply be too crowded and their facilities have aging HVAC. I'll be the partner that every district in the state needs to support their students' and staffs' safety.
Each district is different and we need clear state-level, science-based gating criteria for phased opening of schools and public health oversight of safety to keep our educators and students safe.
DPI, in accordance with the state health department should play a key role in disseminating information and clear guidelines for safely reopening our schools. Additionally, DPI along with other partner agencies need to ensure our schools have the PPE needed for protection and that school staff get early access to vaccines.
DPI needs to advocate for additional federal and state resources to direct to schools because preparing for reopening and staying open is a large investment that local public schools (and by extension our communities/tax payers) cannot shoulder alone.
I'm confident with my leadership this summer, all our state's schools will be open for in-person learning this fall.
Kerr: The pandemic has shined a spotlight and exacerbated the persistent achievement gaps and growing disparities and inequities across our state. My highest priority on day one will be to work in partnership with stakeholders to ensure that ALL of Wisconsin's children and schools have equitable access to resources and the necessary identified support needed to recover from the deleterious impact of the pandemic on their academic, social, emotional and physical well being.
My nine point statewide recovery plan calls for a collaborative and an all-hands-on-deck approach. The plan not only includes returning all students and staff safely back to school using evidence-based medical approaches but also includes a robust plan of proven research-based best practices to address the learning loss and inequities that have been exacerbated by this pandemic, such as robust broadband access, tech devices, social-emotional and mental health needs and food insecurity
What haven't you been asked that you'd like to address?
Underly: I am unapologetically 100% pro-public schools. I strongly believe that the public should be investing their public dollars to make public schools better and meet the needs of all public school kids and that the $350 million public dollars we are sending into private schools are costing kids opportunities.
Our public schools should be the great equalizer in our society, but funding two systems deepens the inequity and opportunity gaps of our public school students, especially rural kids and those of color and those in poverty. Wisconsin cannot afford to support both a public and private school system, and I will always advocate for our public school system.
Kerr: From day one, I will work diligently to amplify the State Superintendent's voice as a reasonable and strong advocate for all students. I will advocate for more equitable funding while developing a more respectful relationship built on trust and partnership. I want us to focus on our future and the important work we need to do now to recover from this pandemic. I have the ability to work with both sides of the aisle to unite our efforts for the children and families of Wisconsin. I am beholden to kids, families, and educators in that order.

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