Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn and the school board have “different visions” for the future of the district.
That’s all either side would say about the decision to end a nine-year relationship. The board voted 4-3 this week not to extend Munn’s contract, which expires at the end of the school year.
Of the four who voted in favor, only Nichelle Ortiz commented before her vote, saying the district needed change and healing.
In an interview with Chalkbeat, Munn said he’s proud of the equity lens he brought to improving education in the diverse district and hopes that key programs — such as a partnership with CSU Global that expanded college access — continue.
Munn said he would have been interested in staying — if certain conditions were met. He had asked board members to begin considering the direction they wanted to take over the summer, ahead of the February deadline to inform him of whether they planned to renew his contract.
“In my contract there’s pretty clear language around governance structure and how that works,” Munn said. “And ultimately it would be good to be aligned in vision with the board. What’s become clear is we have a conflict in our vision.”
Board President Debbie Gerkin echoed that sentiment.
“The board and Rico have different visions for the future,” she said, declining to go further.
Gerkin and board members Michael Carter and Anne Keke voted against the transition agreement and would have preferred to extend Munn’s contract. Board members Stephanie Mason, Vicki Reinhard, Tramaine Duncan and Ortiz voted not to renew Munn’s contract.
Now that the decision has been made, Gerkin said, the board is focused on doing a thorough search with the help of the community for the next superintendent.
The board is meeting in a closed-door session Sunday morning to receive legal guidance about how to kick-off the search. Munn wrote a transition plan approved by the board in which he steps back at the end of December, but still helps the district through the end of the school year. He will then continue in a consulting role to help onboard the new superintendent next fall.
Before he steps back at the end of this month, Munn said two of his priorities are to leave the district with a clear strategy for advocacy at the legislature and to start the budget-drafting process in January.
Although neither Munn nor school board members elaborated on what puts their visions at odds, tensions have been evident in public meetings in recent years.
The governance stipulations in Munn’s contract require the school board to use a policy governance model to oversee him. Policy governance calls for the board to stay out of day-to-day decisions. Instead, the superintendent handles daily operations, and the board sets goals and restrictions for the superintendent to follow as he carries out his work.
In recent years the board modified the model to take back more control over certain issues. And they’ve struggled with keeping discussions focused on evaluating the superintendent’s work toward their goals. They’ve also changed goals multiple times.
Munn’s contract also requires that he receive an evaluation every year, but that hasn’t happened. This year, the school board decided not to evaluate Munn because the pandemic had caused disruptions, meaning they had limited data, and the most recent goals were set less than a year ago.
Munn wrote a two-page memo in objection.
“I utilize your direction for how I set goals and evaluate the overall performance of the district,” he wrote. “Despite the clear challenges of the year we were able to conduct formal evaluations for every other employee of APS. The board’s decision to not perform my evaluation hinders the effectiveness of the system by not providing new direction or standing by its prior direction.”
Munn went on to write that if the board went with the evaluation tool they adopted in February 2021, which accounts for limited data and allows for alternative approaches, his performance would earn a “satisfactory” evaluation.
He noted that he sought guidance from the board to clarify expectations in early 2022, but that the board was unable to reach any conclusions after several meetings.
Most recently, some board members expressed frustration about Munn’s recommendation to close two small elementary schools as part of the district’s long term facilities plan, Blueprint APS. A divided board initially rejected the recommendation, but Munn brought it back unchanged. Several board members struggled with that, but a majority approved it.
Munn said he was unable to change the recommendations without the board changing the criteria he should use to consider which schools should close.
Now, the future of Blueprint, policy governance, and other district projects are open questions. Gerkin said board members have not discussed those issues. Other than Gerkin, board members did not respond to interview requests from Chalkbeat.
Monica Colbert, a former school board member who wanted Munn to stay, said she hopes the district will keep moving forward with the work he started.
“It is a transition,” Colbert said. “This has to be viewed as an opportunity for growth — not wiping the slate clean and starting over.”
The district has made significant progress in academics, Colbert said. “We don’t want to lose that momentum.”
Kayla Armstrong-Romero, another former board member who was often at odds with Munn, said that during the pandemic she came to see Munn’s leadership abilities and is now sad his contract isn’t being renewed.
“Throughout the pandemic his leadership was amazing,” Armstrong-Romero said. “Hands down, he led Aurora in such a collaborative, impeccable manner that I would have voted to renew his contract based on his performance.”
Linnea Reed-Ellis, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said she hopes the school board will look for a superintendent who values all voices.
“It’s making sure all voices in the community are included,” Reed-Ellis said. “Valuing the professionals in the schools who work daily with students and considering their voice in each decision-making.”
The teachers union in the past has had a strained relationship with Munn. Reed-Ellis did not want to speak Thursday about Munn’s performance or the board’s decision.
Colbert and Armstrong-Romero both spoke to Munn’s ability to build relationships as a key asset that the school board should consider as they search for the next district leader.
“We have to be a school district that talks about kids more than it does about adults,” Colbert said. “That’s one of the most laudable things about Rico. He was willing to take the arrows and face the backlash for recommendations or decisions that had to be implemented. That politically agnostic superintendent is really important in a district like Aurora.”
Even though current board president Gerkin said she would have liked to see Munn’s contract extended, she also believes the district will find someone to carry on important work.
“I have every confidence as we move forward, we’re going to find the next great superintendent for APS,” Gerkin said.
Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at firstname.lastname@example.org.