Jill Underly will become Wisconsin's next State Superintendent of Public Instruction. (Photo provided)
Jill Underly will become Wisconsin's next State Superintendent of Public Instruction on July 5. (Photo provided)

Conservative-backed candidates win two Court of Appeals judgeships as voters take part in local, non-partisan elections.

Voters across Wisconsin decided state and local election outcomes Tuesday, including who will oversee the state’s public schools. 

Jill Underly will be Wisconsin’s next Superintendent of Public Instruction, defeating challenger Deborah Kerr in Tuesday’s election after a contentious race that attracted partisan support and money. She was elected to a four-year term to oversee the state’s public schools as head of the state Department of Public Instruction. 

Underly, superintendent of the Pecatonica school district, garnered 58% of the vote compared to 42% for Kerr, who retired last year from her job as Brown Deer school district superintendent. Underly had 526,011 votes while Kerr had 386,033. 

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Underly was supported by Democrats and the state’s largest teachers union, while Kerr was backed by Republicans, including former Gov. Scott Walker. Outside spending in the race has topped $1 million, the most ever spent by special interests trying to influence the officially nonpartisan race, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said.

The candidates were sharply divided on key education issues, perhaps most notably on private voucher schools. Kerr was an advocate for such schools, while Underly opposed them, saying they take much-needed resources from public schools without accountability. 

During a Facebook Live address Tuesday night, Underly thanked her supporters and said reopening schools to in-person learning safely in the fall will be her top priority. 

“Wisconsin’s kids and 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,” she said.

Underly will start her new job in July and will replace Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who was appointed to oversee the state Department of Public Instruction after Gov. Tony Evers was elected Wisconsin governor in November 2018.

In other Wisconsin elections, Rep. John Jagler (R-Watertown) was elected to represent the 13th state Senate District seat. He defeated three candidates for the position, including Melissa Winker, who placed second. The seat was formerly held  by Scott Fitzgerald, the longtime state Senate majority leader recently elected to US Congress.

In another special election, Republican Elijah Behnke had 63% of the vote to top Karl Jaeger to represent the 89th Assembly District. The seat was held by state Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), who won reelection in November but then left to take a lobbying job. 

Well-funded conservative candidates won a pair of races for state Court of Appeals judgeships. In Appeals Court District 2, which includes 12 counties in southeastern Wisconsin, Muskego Municipal Court Judge Shelley Grogan unseated incumbent Judge Jeff Davis. In Appeals District 3, encompassing 35 of the state’s northern counties, Outagamie Circuit Court Judge Gregory Gill defeated Wausau-based attorney Rick Cveykus.

At the local level, voters determined who will represent them on school boards, town and village boards, and city councils. They also determined the outcomes of 69 school referenda across the state ranging from multimillion-dollar renovation and building projects to modest asks for funding to maintain existing   

In Waukesha County, Kevin Zimmermann, a Muskego-Norway School Board candidate who dismissed slavery and Black history as “such a small part” of US history, won one of three open seats on the board. Zimmermann is a Milwaukee Police officer who has spread falsehoods about COVID-19, argued people do not have a right to food and shelter, and defended Kenosha prote