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Jill Underly Defeats Deborah Kerr In State Superintendent Election

Appeals Court, State Assembly, State Senate And Many School Board Races Also On Ballot

A woman in a face mask attends a campaign event outside.
State superintendent candidate Jill Underly holds a campaign event Tuesday, March 30, 2021, at the Waukesha County Democratic Party office. Angela Major/WPR

Jill Underly will be Wisconsin’s next state superintendent, taking over leadership of the state Department of Public Instruction in July.

Underly, who was supported by the state’s largest teachers’ union and many Democratic lawmakers, beat former Brown Deer Superintendent Deborah Kerr during Tuesday’s spring election.

Underly said her first priority in office will be reopening schools for in-person learning and making sure they have the necessary resources to open safely.

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“Wisconsin kids in public schools face significant challenges as we work to return to normal, get every student caught up and support their mental health and well-being in the aftermath of this pandemic and the enormous trauma and disruption it’s caused for all of us,” Underly said in her acceptance speech over Zoom on Tuesday night. “Overcoming these hurdles won’t be easy, but I know if we work together, we can get it done and do what’s right for our kids.”

The Wisconsin Democratic Party and the Wisconsin AFL-CIO sent out press releases congratulating Underly on her win Tuesday evening.

“Today, Wisconsin voters continued the call for a better future for all by voting to elect union-endorsed candidate Dr. Jill Underly to lead our public schools out of the pandemic with a focus on equality and a strong, fully-funded public education system that supports every child, every day,” Wisconsin AFL-CIO Stephanie Bloomingdale said in the email.

Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler called students, teachers and families “the real winners tonight.”

Kerr gave a brief concession speech just after 9:30 p.m., livestreamed on her Facebook page. She said she had called Underly to congratulate her on her victory.

“She fought hard, and now I hope for her success,” said Kerr. “Her success as our state superintendent means success for our kids — our kids must always come first.”

Gov. Tony Evers held the state superintendent position for nearly a decade, resigning when he was elected governor in 2018. His appointed replacement, Carolyn Stanford Taylor, didn’t run.

Assembly, State Senate Races Also On Tuesday’s Ballot

Tuesday’s election dealt primarily with education — an even more contentious issue than usual after a year of pandemic learning — but voters also cast their ballots for appeals court judges, a northeastern Wisconsin state Assembly seat, and a state Senate race in south-central Wisconsin.

Republican John Jagler won the District 13 state Senate race, and Republican Elijah Behnke will represent District 89 in the state Assembly. Shelley Grogan beat Jeffrey Davis in the 2nd District Court of Appeals race, while Maxine White will serve in the District 1 Court of Appeals after running unopposed. Gregory Gill, who ran against Rick Cveykus to sit on the District 3 Court of Appeals, was leading Tuesday evening by double digits with 74 percent of precincts reporting.

In some areas, voters weighed in on their local school boards. Some, like Wausau’s, were particularly contentious because of disagreements over how board members have handled reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, there were 69 school referendums on the ballot, in 55 school districts.

Wisconsin has had several pandemic elections, including a headline-grabbing primary last April, but this one came with particular confusion over mask rules after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Evers’ mask mandate last week.

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