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Kerr wants to decentralize Wisconsin education department

March 11, 2021 GMT

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Wisconsin state schools superintendent candidate Deborah Kerr is proposing decentralizing the Department of Public Instruction and moving or rehiring its more than 400 employees from Madison into offices across the state.

Kerr, a former Brown Deer superintendent who is backed by conservatives, faces Pecatonica Superintendent Jill Underly in the April 6 election. Underly is backed by the state teachers union and Democrats. The race is officially nonpartisan.

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Kerr detailed her proposal to move the state education department out of Madison on Wednesday. Its current office is a couple blocks away from the state Capitol.

“Under DPI’s current model, agency staff are plucked from the Madison area, and that’s not inclusive of any of the diversity and the needs of our Wisconsin children,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Kerr said at a news conference in Milwaukee.

Kerr said she would perform an “equity audit” of DPI staff and look to hire new staff who live in communities outside of Madison, possibly resulting in terminations of some current employees. Kerr, who lives in Caledonia, would not move to Madison and would work at offices around the state.

Underly called Kerr’s proposal a “Hail Mary to get more attention for a flailing campaign.”

“This is a very expensive endeavor,” said Underly, who previously worked as an assistant manager at DPI. “What people want are more resources so they can hire school counselors and nurses and teachers; they don’t want to waste resources on DPI.”

Kerr said part of the intention with the shift would be to work more closely with private schools, including those that accept publicly funded vouchers that pay for some students to attend private schools. Kerr is a supporter of the voucher program while Underly wants to freeze new admissions.

If the state superintendent were to need new office space for staff outside of Madison, she would likely require approvals from other officials, according to Legislative Reference Bureau analyst Richard Loeza. New rentals would need approval from the Department of Administration secretary and Gov. Tony Evers, while new buildings would need approval in the capital budget.

Evers is a Democrat and former state superintendent who served as Underly’s boss when she was at the department. He has not endorsed in the race.