BLANCHARDVILLE — Jill Underly’s campaign for State Superintendent has taken her across Wisconsin, but her passion and inspiration to run can be found back in the Pecatonica School District where she currently serves as the superintendent.
Underly has been with the district for seven years but has had experience in all aspects of education, including five years at the Department of Public Instruction where she worked as in both educator licensing and Title I before making the move to Pecatonica schools.
“You’re in a spot there when you’re working at the state and you’re working at that level that I think you lose perspective on how things are implemented at the local level, like in our school districts,” she said. “I think we get too busy at some of the state agencies working on policy, trying to do our thing, and then forgetting the impact or what really matters at the local level.”
Underly hopes that her experience working in a rural community will give her a better perspective when working for all schools in the state, as two-thirds of Wisconsin schools are rural.
But her knowledge and experience doesn’t stop with rural schools.
Underly has worked as a teacher in rural, urban and suburban school districts, in addition to her experience as an elementary, middle and high school principal.
“At the end of the day, I have the skills, I have the experience,” she said. “I may be 20 years younger than [Deborah Kerr], but I have certainly a much wider depth and breadth of experience.”
Through her experience, Underly has found a passion for problem solving, which she said will be helpful in the position of State Superintendent.
“I’ve always been a problem solver,” she said. “I like to just make things better. I try to find a different way to do things that might be more efficient or might be better and that’s just always been part of my personality.”
Some of the problems Underly hopes to take on as State Superintendent stem from issues she has seen working at the local level.
“There were certain things that just weren’t working,” she said. “But you’re limited by some of the [state] policies.”
In the summer of 2015, Underly began a summer enrichment day camp for local families with elementary students that won a 2016 award from the Wisconsin Rural Schools Association. Th next year, Pecatonica introduced full-day 4K for families, one of the first in the state to do so. Two years later, the district expanded the program, which has been replicated across many rural, public schools across the state.
In office, Underly has three main priorities, in no specific order: early childcare expansion, teacher recruitment and retention, and reworking the school funding formula.
“If this is the only thing I accomplish in my tenure, we really need a better school funding formula,” she said. “The reason we have to go to referendum is because the school finance formula isn’t working.”
In her own district, Underly has been able to see the benefits of early childcare, specifically from the district’s all-day 4K.
“We need to do better giving all kids a strong start,” she said.
Underly and opponent Deborah Kerr advanced Feb. 16 in the Wisconsin State Superintendent Race out of a field of seven candidates.
Underly took home the most votes, with 27.31%. Kerr followed at 26.49% of votes.
The two will face off once more in the April 6 general election.
After that, Underly said she is ready to hit the ground running on day one.
“I look forward to serving the state of Wisconsin and serving our kids,” she said. “I’ve got the energy and I’ve got the skills that’ll move the needle. I want to make things better. I just feel that there’s so much optimism and so much potential.”
Underly taught history and social studies at the middle and high school levels before getting into administration. She has been the Superintendent of the Pecatonica School District for six years. Originally from Indiana, Underly moved to Wisconsin in 2005 to pursue graduate school at UW-Madison, where she later received a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. She double-majored at Indiana University, receiving bachelor degrees in History and Sociology. She then earned Masters degrees in Secondary Education Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Administration from IUPUI in Indianapolis.
She and husband John have two middle school children and live on a small farm.