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Watch now: Meet the 7 state superintendent candidates in next Tuesday's primary

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Wisconsin State Journal (copy)

Seven candidates are vying for the state superintendent’s seat ahead of the Feb. 16 primary election. Only two will advance to the April 6 election, which will determine who will hold the seat for the next four-year term.

Incumbent Carolyn Stanford Taylor announced in January 2020 that she will not seek election to a full term. She was appointed to the position by Gov. Tony Evers, who had been superintendent since 2009, after he was elected governor in 2018.

Sheila Briggs

Age: 51

Address: 710 South St., DeForest

Family: Married with two children

Job: Assistant state superintendent, Department of Public Instruction

Prior elected office: None

Other public service: Three governor’s councils — workforce investment, early childhood and personal financial literacy; former board member, Movin’ Out; former board member, Children’s Trust Fund’s Child Abuse, Prevention & Neglect Board; former vice president, Celebrate Children Foundation

Education: Ph.D. in education leadership and policy, UW-Madison; master administrator capstone certificate in education leadership, UW-Madison; master’s degree in educational administration, Cardinal Stritch University; bachelor’s degree in child and family studies, UW-Madison


Joe Fenrick

Age: 38

Address: 538 Taft St., Fond du Lac

Family: Married with four children

Job: Science teacher, Fond du Lac High School; geology lecturer, UW-Oshkosh Fond du Lac

Prior elected office: Serving third term on Fond du Lac County Board; chairman, Human Service Committee; chairman, Social Service Committee

Other public service: Volunteer soccer coach, volunteer tee-ball coach, volunteer track and field coach, volunteer tutor for Equity in Excellence Program

Education: Master’s degree in education curriculum and instruction and bachelor’s degree in science education natural science, UW-Oshkosh


Troy Gunderson

Age: 58

Address: 519 Lakewood St., West Salem

Family: Married with two children

Job: Former West Salem School District superintendent; professor of school of finance, Viterbo University

Prior elected office: None

Other public service: Former superintendent of the West Salem and Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau school districts; high school principal of Princeton and West Salem high schools; teacher at Melrose-Mindoro High School

Education: Bachelor’s degree in education, University of Minnesota; master’s degree in educational administration, Winona State University.


Shandowlyon (Shawn) Hendricks-Williams

Age: 55

Address: 3328 W. Silver Spring Drive, Milwaukee

Family: Two children

Job: Full-time candidate

Prior elected office: None

Other public service: Former director for the Milwaukee office of the governor; former DPI official; former special education teacher

Education: Associate degree in human service, Milwaukee Area Technical College; bachelor’s degree in human services, Springfield College; master’s degree in education, Cardinal Stritch University; Ed.D in educational leadership, National Louis University

Email, website:;

Deborah Kerr

Age: 63

Address: 6112 Stefanie Way, Caledonia

Family: Married

Job: Consultant and founder of consulting company: Lead Greatly, LLC

Prior elected office: None

Other public service: Milwaukee North Shore Rotary; former president, Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators; former president, American Association of School Administrators; Education Foundation of Brown Deer; board member, Stryv365

Education: Bachelor’s degree in arts & science, Valparaiso University; master’s degree in educational leadership, University of Alaska-Fairbanks; Ed.D. in educational leadership, National Louis University


Steve Krull

Age: 40

Address: 310 E. Bolivar Ave., Milwaukee

Family: Wife and two children

Job: Principal, Garland School

Prior elected office: None

Other public service: Instructor and manager at the U.S. Air Force, teacher, academic coach, assistant principal

Education: Ph.D. in urban studies, UW-Milwaukee; master’s degree in teaching, Cardinal Stritch University; bachelor’s degree in human services, Wayland Baptist University; associate degree, Community College of the Air Force

Email or website:

Jill Underly

Age: 43

Address: 1838 County Road K, Hollandale

Family: Married with two children

Job: Superintendent, Pecatonica School District

Prior elected office: None

Other public service: Department of Public Instruction, educator licensing and Title I, focused on Milwaukee and Green Bay with one year assistant director of educator licensing

Education: Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy analysis, UW–Madison; master’s degree in educational administration and licensure in educational administration; master’s degree in secondary education curriculum and instruction, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis; bachelor’s degree in history and sociology, Indiana University

Email, website:,


How will you tackle issues such as trauma and learning inequity brought on by COVID-19 once students are back in buildings?

Briggs: We must work towards reopening schools by getting our teachers vaccinated and ensuring our districts have the PPE they need. Second, our kids and teachers will need mental health services to deal with the trauma of the pandemic, and then we can get our kids back on track with high-quality instructional materials to scaffold them back to grade level.

Fenrick: I want education to be a model of bottom up instead of top down. Once students are back in buildings, they along with teachers and parents, should decide what they need to tackle the trauma and learning inequities brought on by Covid-19. The impacts will likely be different in each school and they are the best people to identify what they need.

Gunderson: I will lead a coordinated statewide effort to reconnect students and families to their schools and communities. We will gather data regarding the impact of the pandemic on student learning and lead a collaborative approach to developing a statewide strategy in support of school districts as they bridge the social, emotional, and learning gaps caused by the pandemic.

Hendricks-Williams: Per my Bill of Rights for Wisconsin Students, each student will receive social work services to address trauma brought on by COVID-19. In addition to services received from school social workers, districts will partner with community based organizations, such as Rogers Behavioral Health, that can provide services face to face or via telehealth.

Kerr: Recently I released my statewide recovery plan to return our students and staff to school sensibly and safely. My plan includes stakeholder voices, evidence-based medical and accelerated learning approaches as well as proven strategies to address student and staff trauma and inequities that have been exacerbated by this pandemic, such as robust broadband access, tech devices and food insecurity.

Krull: Children cannot learn to their full potential unless they feel physically, socially and emotionally safe to learn. I believe we must expand socio-emotional learning and hire more social workers, school psychologists, etc. These skills and supports will help ensure that every child is ready to learn and help them catch up from the inequities caused by COVID.

Underly: Recovering from COVID-19 will be a top priority, as well as addressing racial inequity, and I would advocate for fully funding and providing universal, full-day 4K, and providing for additional recovery programs including: birth to three, after-school programs for recovery and enrichment, summer camps for students currently without access, and summer school that is both recovery and enrichment.

How can the state improve literacy among low-income and minority students?

Briggs: I have real experience closing achievement gaps. As principal at Schenk Elementary, my team brought third graders from 58% to 100% proficient/advanced in reading, despite the poverty level tripling during that time. We need to make sure that all schools have high-quality instructional materials and a well-rounded curriculum so kids get the background knowledge they need to be successful.

Fenrick: Every student deserves an equitable education that promotes future promise. The initial years of a child’s education are extremely important as they build the foundation of literacy. We need to teach the science of reading with fidelity. This means that schools need to provide wraparound services to children before kindergarten that helps with vocabulary, letters, speech, and sight words.

Gunderson: The Leaders Ready to Lead portion of my campaign platform aims to unify the entire state around a vision based upon a collective approach to closing our achievement gaps. The Teachers Ready to Teach portion calls for the training, support, and curriculum necessary for achievement. Working together with an agreed upon approach will raise achievement for all students.

Hendricks-Williams: Districts must receive weighted funding to meet the needs of students living in poverty and students of color per the Vincent vs. Voight court decision and to close achievement gaps. We must diversify the teacher pipeline based on research that concluded that students of color demonstrate higher outcomes when they receive one year of instruction from a teacher of color.

Kerr: By following the same methods used in Florida and Mississippi that raised achievement for all students AND closed gaps for low-income and minority students. It starts with my Reading Roadmap with better training, quality materials, focused assessment (not more testing), and more intensive interventions when students fall behind. We will close gaps and raise achievement for all students.

Krull: Wisconsin used to be among the best in the nation for education. But after 30 years of top-down reforms, we now have fewer vocational programs, a teacher shortage, and the largest achievement gap in the country. We need real change to rebuild our schools and I have the experience necessary to fix our education system and regain our national leadership.

Underly: Improving literacy begins with setting kids up for lifelong success: Early Childhood Education, mental health and wellness access to kids and staff. We should utilize equity audits to analyze school district practices that are racist and/or biased, replacing them if necessary. Through equity audits, we can ensure all children have access and can thrive in a rigorous academic environment.

Should all public school districts offer 3-year-old kindergarten? Why or why not?

Briggs: Absolutely. I started my 30-year career as a kindergarten teacher and led the charge to bring 4K to Madison schools. Studies show the earlier we invest in our kids, the better their chances of success. My entire career has been focused on tackling equity and closing achievement gaps. I’m eager to continue this work as state superintendent.

Fenrick: We have wonderful childcare centers in our state that provide excellent curriculums that prepare our children for school. In some areas of our state child care can be difficult to find and a 3K option or expanding early childhood could help families. I fully support local control and believe communities and school boards should make this decision.

Gunderson: Yes. Offering access to our school system for all 3-year-old children is a cornerstone of the Students Ready to Learn portion of my campaign platform. Serving our youngest children and their families is absolutely the best use of public resources. Offering universal 3K is an example of leveraging public schools to improve the common good.

Hendricks-Williams: Per my Bill of Rights for Wisconsin Students, all schools will offer K3 and K4 programs infused with developmentally appropriate practices centered around attainment of pre-reading, pre-writing and pre-mathematical skills through play and exploration. Early childhood programs provide an opportunity to proactively address skills needed for primary school and reduce the number of students referred for special education services.

Kerr: My first priority is for all districts to offer high-quality, full day 4K, with adequate funding. I would then turn my focus to programs for 3-year-olds: collaborations between parents, child care, Head Start, and other community groups. Working together, we would ensure that every family has access to high quality programs based on the Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards.

Krull: I believe we must correct our current system before talking about expanding any new programs. This includes 3-year-old kindergarten. We need to reexamine how we fund schools and shift from our over reliance on property taxes to a state funded system. Only then can we truly have an equal and equitable system for all children.

Underly: Yes. All children need to have the same strong start to schooling, including literacy and math exposure, behavior interventions, and support for mental health and special needs. Early intervention will help close the opportunity gaps. These investments help with graduation, long-term educational and health outcomes, and closing achievement gaps for children of color and children who grow up in poverty.


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