In a forum focused on Black and brown students Thursday, candidates for state schools superintendent shared plans for turning around a K-12 education system that privileges wealthy districts, fails to retain a diverse workforce and has been repeatedly called out for the worst test-score gaps in the country.
Two candidates faced questioning from another candidate, Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams, about racist incidents that occurred in the districts where they served as superintendents.
“Wisconsin is the worst state for racial equity in education,” said Hendricks-Williams, who worked for the state Department of Public Instruction under Tony Evers before directing his Milwaukee office when he became governor. “How can you try to fix this after failing to condemn racism in your own backyard?”
In Jill Underly’s district in 2019, Pecatonica High School alumni reportedly rode a Homecoming float that read “Trump needs a wall to deal with the Southwestern crew” as a group wearing sombreros acted out climbing a wall. (Southwestern was the name of the school Pecatonica played in the upcoming game.) At the time, NBC15 reported Underly would not speak to reporters but issued a statement condemning the float.
At the forum Tuesday, Underly, who is still superintendent for the district, stood by her handling of the incident.
“That was a community Homecoming; it had nothing to do with the school,” Underly said. “The school was not involved and I actually spoke out against it and that’s documented in the news that it was something we condemned as a school district.”
Hendricks-Williams pressed Underly again.
“Do not try to minimize this. … This is about the Black and brown families watching this and their right to feel safe when they send their children to school,” she said. “You don’t get to tell us how to feel and you can’t pretend like racism isn’t a problem. That float was in your district.”
Underly was then given the floor. She didn’t respond to Hendricks-Williams and instead answered the question on the table about helping students who’ve experienced trauma.
Troy Gunderson responded briefly about an incident in Galesville, on the last day of the school year in 2010, his last year on the job. He now works as an adjunct professor of school finance at Viterbo University in La Crosse.
“We had a student wear a KKK shirt when I was at a school district. We immediately dealt with that,” Gunderson said Thursday. “We immediately spoke out. We immediately disciplined that child. That’s completely wrong.”
According to news reports, multiple students wore homemade T-shirts depicting Ku Klux Klan members to school and 12 shirts were confiscated. At the time, Gunderson told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that police were investigating and he wasn’t sure how the students would be punished.
A spokesperson for Gunderson did not clarify how many students were involved but said Gunderson “acted swiftly to begin the investigative and disciplinary process prior to his departure.”
Three other candidates — Assistant State Superintendent Sheila Briggs, former Brown Deer Superintendent Deborah Kerr and Milwaukee principal Steve Krull — participated in the forum. Fond du Lac teacher Joe Fenrick said he missed the forum due to a teaching commitment.
Candidates agreed on many priorities: making state aid more equitable; increasing the number of Black and brown teachers; improving diversity of curriculum; and increasing aid for special education, English language learners, students from low-income families and mental health services.
Hendricks-Williams and Kerr are the only two candidates who haven’t taken a stance against tax-funded vouchers, which allow students to attend private schools free of cost to their families. Changes to the program would require legislative action.
Kerr, who has received support and sizeable donations from voucher supporters and conservatives, shared Thursday that she identifies as a “pragmatic Democrat.” The superintendent position is officially nonpartisan.
Gianmarco Katz, a senior at Reagan High School who addressed the candidates live at the forum, called on them to bring radical changes as the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated inequities.
“My hope is that whoever is to become the next superintendent tackles this head-on with bold and extreme policies that really defy the expectations the community has put in place for public schools,” Katz said. “The next superintendent of the state of Wisconsin, I expect them to fight relentlessly for the students they have vowed to serve.”
Watch the full forum at Wisconsin Eye by registering for a free account.
The primary for the superintendent race is Tuesday. The two candidates receiving the most votes will move to the general election April 6. Find information on voting at myvote.wi.gov.