AURORA | Two Black members of the Aurora Public Schools board of education said former Superintendent Rico Munn was “not Black enough” and criticized him for not prioritizing the hiring of Black employees over other people of color, according to a report made by an external investigator.
Those allegations and claims of racial bias were among others in a formal complaint Munn lodged against the school board earlier this year.
A decision by an outside employment law attorney hired by the district, published earlier this month and obtained by the Sentinel, substantiated Munn’s allegations and ruled that racial bias played a factor in his contract not being renewed. The decision also sanctioned two board members, Stephanie Mason and Tramaine Duncan, for their “unlawful race discrimination.”
“Based upon a thorough review of multiple documents and testimony from many witnesses, I conclude that it is more likely than not that Mr. Munn was constructively discharged from his position as Superintendent because of his race,” the decision said. “Specifically, a preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that certain influential Board members convinced a majority of the Board to favor the non-renewal of Mr. Munn’s contract based upon their discriminatory belief that Mr. Munn failed to conform to the stereotypes of his race – i.e., that he was ‘not Black enough’ to advance the Board’s mission of hiring and retaining Black employees.”
The decision, dated June 6, was written by employment attorney and investigator Doug Hamill. In an addendum, Hamill said he was contracted by APS to conduct an investigation into Munn’s complaint as an outside party to prevent a conflict of interest.
Munn announced in December that he would not be seeking to renew his current contract, which expires at the end of the 2022-2023 school year, citing a “conflict of vision” with the school board. Munn has clashed with the board on a number of issues, particularly since the most recent school board election in November 2021, where three new members were elected.
The board members have also frequently struggled to come to a consensus among themselves. At a meeting this spring, members spoke about a lack of trust among the board and questioned whether efforts to improve things would even be worthwhile.
Four of the district’s seven school board directors — Duncan, Mason, Anne Keke and Michael Carter — are Black, as is A.J. Crabill, a consultant who has been working with the board for a number of years.
The June 6 decision letter said that Munn had enjoyed a “good working relationship” with the board until the fall of 2021, after which he began to clash significantly with Mason and Duncan for “refusing to exclusively focus on the advancement of Black people but rather focusing his attention more broadly on the Board’s written policy of the advancement of People of Color.”
Carter, Keke, board member Vicki Reinhard and interim Superintendent Mark Seglem all said in interviews that some board members had criticized Munn for what the decision letter described as him not being Black enough or not protecting Black employees.
The letter said that Keke stated that Duncan wanted Munn to “act Blacker.”
Crabill described an environment where Munn’s “Black card” was consistently called into question by some board members, and he said that Mason was particularly critical of Munn, according to Hamill’s report.
Crabill also said that Mason and Duncan had approached him privately to seek guidance about whether or not to renew Munn’s contract, the letter said.
The letter shed more light on the process that led to Munn stepping down. The report stated that in August board members met in executive session to discuss his contract, where a majority of board members were in favor of not renewing his contract. Keke and Carter opposed this decision, the letter said, and Carter told Munn about the decision and said it was “BS.”
After that, the letter said the board vacillated for about six or seven weeks as to whether to renew Munn’s contract, and then in September told him it would not be seeking a renewal. At that point, the letter said Munn began preparing a separation agreement where he would step down in December.
In a determination in the letter, Hamill wrote that he disagreed with a determination from a representative of the district’s human relations compliance officer that race was not a significant factor in the board’s decision not to seek a renewal of Munn’s contract.
Hamill agreed with findings from the APS compliance officer’s representative that there was not evidence of a race-based hostile work environment or retaliation, and that there had not been any violations of Colorado Open Meetings Law.
“The preponderance of the evidence establishes that at least two Board members – Stephanie Mason and Tramaine Duncan – believed that Mr. Munn was ‘not Black enough’ to continue serving as Superintendent,” the complaint said. “This belief is unlawful discrimination based upon Mr. Munn’s race.”
Hamill cited case law making clear that even though Munn was being harassed about his race from those of the same race, claims of racism ring true.
“It is reasonable to conclude, based upon the totality of the evidence, that this racial-stereotyping belief fueled the criticisms and ultimate demise of Mr. Munn’s tenure as Superintendent.”
The decision letter said that Duncan and Mason should be publicly reprimanded and censured and would be ineligible for serving as president, vice president, secretary, or treasurer for the remainder of their four-year terms.
Mason’s term expires this fall and she has signaled that she does not plan to run again. Duncan’s first term began in fall 2021 and ends in 2025.
All board members are required to participate in five hours of equal opportunity training within 90 days and if he requests, the decision can be included in Munn’s APS personnel file.
The decision said that normally monetary damages would be appropriate, but that they were off the table because as part of his transition agreement Munn waived his right to that kind of compensation.
It also said that the letter should be “in a conspicuous space on the homepage of the APS Board’s website” within 10 days and included in the agenda of the next public meeting, neither of which had occurred by June 20, the date of the district’s last regularly scheduled business meeting of the school year.
A two-hour executive session meeting is scheduled for June 28 “for the purpose of receiving legal advice regarding a Policy AC complaint,” according to the school board’s website.
Board President Debbie Gerkin told the Sentinel Tuesday that she could not comment until after the executive session, which will be the board’s first opportunity to meet with counsel regarding the decision.
Munn officially stepped down as superintendent at the end of 2022, and he is currently serving in an advisory role until his contract expires at the end of June. He has accepted a position as Colorado State University President Amy Parson’s chief of staff beginning next month.
Michael Giles, who currently serves as the Assistant Superintendent of Equity, Culture and Community Engagement in the Cherry Creek School District, will take the reins as the next APS superintendent July 1. Giles is also Black, as were the other two named finalists for the role, Andre Wright and Nia Campbell.
Munn was the district’s first Black superintendent, and he spoke regularly throughout his tenure about the importance of providing a quality education for all of the district’s 38,000 students, over half of whom are Hispanic and about 18% of whom are Black.
He spoke less about his own personal background, but on some occasions was candid about his experiences as a Black man, including in an opinion piece he penned for the Sentinel during the summer of 2020 where he discussed the discrimination he has faced and how it shaped his outlook on life.
“I am a man,” he wrote. “I am a Black man. I am a Black man in America. I am a Black man in America who holds a position of relative authority and privilege. All of these things are true and all of these things hold meaning for me, especially at this moment in time.”
In a February 2021 article interviewing prominent Black Aurorans about Black history, Munn spoke to the Sentinel about the district’s work to recruit more teachers of color. He also said that he thought the district needed to be more explicit about the diversity work it was doing.
“We have done really good work trying to elevate voices and trying to identify and speak to key equity issues,” he said. “But we have not necessarily been as explicit about the why and the imperative around that as I think we could be and needed to be in this moment in time.”
During Munn’s tenure APS named three schools after Black community members and East Middle School band director Jimmy Day became Colorado’s first Black man to be named teacher of the year.
In an email this week, Munn said that his family was dealing with a medical issue that required the majority of his attention. He said in a statement that he was “proud to have led the most diverse team in the state as we served one of the most diverse communities in the nation.”
“Over the last ten years we created and championed efforts to support the achievement of the BIPOC, disabled and LGBTQIA communities as well as the economically, linguistically and neurologically diverse families who call APS home,” he said. “We must fight against any person or ideology that positions success as a zero sum game. In a just world there is room for all of us.”
Munn declined to speak more about the complaint. Mason said at Tuesday’s board meeting that she could not comment. Duncan was attending the meeting remotely and could not immediately be reached.
This is a developing story and will be updated.