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)

Underly sets up a large transition team before taking over as state superintendent in early July.

Dr. Jill Underly is nearing the midway point of the transition period between winning the post of state superintendent of public instruction and assuming its duties, and she’s given herself a lot of homework in that time. 

In her first interview since winning the seat in April, the former Pecatonica School District superintendent spoke with UpNorthNews about how she has created a transition team to prepare her for the new job and set up a leadership team to turn election-season topics into tangible proposals for change.

“Their job will be to take the agenda that I promoted in the campaign and pick it apart and come up with policy advice,” she said of the leadership team, giving examples such as improving early childhood education, teacher retention, or more diversified recruitment.

Underly said the goal of the transition team is to ensure her administration starts with a broad base of input. 

The transition team has 16 members including: Kim Kaukl, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance; Milwaukee School Board member Marva Herdon; Portage County Board member Chai Moua of Stevens Point; Susie Crazy Thunder, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwé and Tribal Outreach Coordinator for Nicolet College; and 2021 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year Trish Kilpin of Greendale.

“I wanted lots of voices represented,” she said. “I wanted women as well as men, people of color. I wanted people from northern Wisconsin, rural Wisconsin as much as I want people from Madison, Milwaukee, and Green Bay. I’m trying to make sure that we have a diverse group of individuals, geographically diverse, and representing different interests [such as] teachers, support staff, people who may have voted for the other candidate.” 

Underly was opposed in the April election by Deborah Kerr, former superintendent of the Brown Deer School District.

Underly ran on promises to use her position to emphasize ongoing needs for students and teachers such as access to quality preschool and child care, recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, and greater access to mental health services, counselors, and nurses. All of those and more are inextricably tied to the need for robust state funding.

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While the role of heading the Department of Public Instruction (DPI)—a job she takes over on July 5—is mostly rooted in behind the-scenes administration to ensure the state’s 426 school districts operate smoothly, Underly notes the superintendent’s role also comes with a built-in bully pulpit.

“Really all the state superintendent can do is advocate, and they can advocate for change,” she said. “They also have the ability to use that position as a megaphone to bring attention to certain issues. And I think that’s what people saw on the campaign trail is that we were bringing attention to things like rural school issues, equity, school funding, school vouchers, [and] referendums. So, while the superintendent doesn’t have any authority necessarily in those areas, they can use that position to set the policy discussions.”

She is among the many who note that a former state superintendent named Tony Evers used the visibility of the post to advocate for various issues over a nine-year period before his election as Wisconsin governor in 2018.

But unlike during Evers’ tenure, two special issues unique to this era will occupy some of Underly’s time. The coronavirus pandemic has led to sharp divisions among Wisconsinites, often over school safety measures such as moving classes online, requiring face masks, and now encouraging vaccinations.

Underly supports continued face mask wearing because it will take some time before enough adults and children are able to become vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I’ve always followed the science,” she said.“If you can get the vaccine, get the vaccine. That’s the number-one way to make sure that we can go back to normal, that our schools can be open, that our families can go back to normal and they can work—and prevent death, right?” 

Another topic unique to public education discussions in 2021 involves a new presidential administration and its push for a robust infrastructure bill. While there is broad, bipartisan support on the need to improve the condition of the nation’s roads, bridges, power grid, water lines, and broadband access, other options, such as investment in schools, garner more debate. 

President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan proposes traditional infrastructure tasks such as school repairs and renovation. It also calls for modernizing facilities such as computer labs so students get a modern education even if they don’t live in a wealthy district. Underly believes a significant national investment in the infrastructure of public education is as critical as any other need.

“Think about the role schools play in educating a community, educating the future workforce” she said, pointing to work roles across the state economy that create the tax base that allows for that reinvestment in infrastructure. “If we took public schools out of that equation, it wouldn’t take long for us to realize what a mistake that would be for our society. It keeps us moving forward. It keeps us progressing. It keeps our democracy intact.”