By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — State superintendent candidate Jill Underly’s use of her Pecatonica School District email account to help build her campaign was “standard practice,” according to an Underly campaign spokeswoman.
But a follow-up email obtained by Empower Wisconsin shows Underly worried about the risks of doing campaign work on taxpayer time.
Underly, backed by Wisconsin’s public teachers unions, faces off against candidate Deborah Kerr in next week’s election for superintendent of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. There have been plenty of political sparks throughout the run of this ostensibly non-partisan race.
The Wisconsin State Journal last week published emails showing Underly twice used her district email account to contact Wisconsin school superintendents and ask for their personal contact information.
“I have something I need to send out to you, but I don’t want to nor should I send it to your school email. If you are so inclined could you please respond to me (by using the address in the To: field) … and share your personal email address with me? I would appreciate it,” Underly wrote in an April 20, 2020 email, a couple weeks before she officially launched her campaign. The subject line was “Personal Email address request — entirely optional.”
Underly sent a second email that afternoon, also on her school account, the newspaper reported. The subject line was, “This is legit — please don’t call my school district to report a weird request.”
“I didn’t know how to ask you for your personal email without being all vague. Please don’t call my school district asking about it — this isn’t a spam message,” Underly wrote.
It may not be spam, but it was a violation of state and district ethics laws, election law experts tell Empower Wisconsin.
Underly sent out the emails to avoid using the district’s email account during her run for office, campaign spokeswoman Alanna Conley told the State Journal.
“This is standard practice, to make sure taxpayer resources aren’t utilized and was done specifically to comply with state laws regarding use of public email — she is literally saying, don’t email me at work, talk to me only on my personal email,” Conley said.
But in another email sent out the next day at 9:44 a.m. from her personal email account, Underly acknowledges she was being “risky.”
“PS: Please do me and yourselves a favor and don’t communicate with me or anyone else about this election on school district emails or servers. I may have been risky in asking for your personal email via our school email, but I couldn’t think of any other way …” she wrote. Besides, Underly added, “there was no money asked for :)”
The email was obtained by Empower Wisconsin, which also has sought additional Underly communications regarding the incident from the Pecatonica School District through the state’s open records law.
Underly really wanted to make sure the superintendents and other public education officials on the email list understood her email wasn’t spam and that she was on the verge of announcing her campaign.
“I’m tying up some loose ends and getting things ready (the things I can officially get ready without declaring). But once I declare and file, it’s on!” Underly wrote. She advised the administrators that they could mention that she was planning to run, if it should come up in conversation, but Underly couldn’t officially say she was because she “hadn’t done the paperwork.”
And then Underly offered a bit of a not-so-veiled campaign pitch.
“I know it’s early and the election isn’t for another year (almost) — but my hope is that a candidate who is pro-public schools can get out there in front of anyone from the side that isn’t pro-public schools and has the best intentions and will advocate for all public school children and children in Wisconsin — rural, urban, suburban, as well as teachers!” she wrote.
Ethan Hollenberger, spokesman for Kerr’s campaign said not only did Underly break the law, she emailed during the school day on consecutive days “while Wisconsin was enduring a safe at home order.”
“Her campaign came before students,” Hollenberger said.
Underly’s campaign did not return Empower Wisconsin’s requests for comments.
The publication of the emails from the Pecatonica superintendent follow a State Journal story a week before showing Kerr, former superintendent of Brown Deer Schools, had used her district email account for private business not long before she left the administrative position.
That story broke within a few hours after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Underly, the “pro-public schools” candidate, sent her kids to private school in downtown Madison.