AURORA | Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn’s previously unexplained decision to step down from the helm of Colorado’s fifth-largest school district was prompted by a “conflict of vision” between himself and the school board about the district’s future.
That’s how Munn and school board president Debbie Gerkin described the split in separate interviews with The Sentinel over the past week, although both declined to go into detail about what that conflict entails. Munn’s separation contract has a clause prohibiting him and the board from disparaging one another.
Munn and the school board, which gained three new members in last fall’s elections, have clashed during the past year over how to handle school closures as part of the district’s ongoing Blueprint APS facilities plan.
The news that Munn planned to step down in a phased exit was announced Dec. 6, but he said the decision was part of an ongoing dialogue with the board that took place throughout the fall semester.
“I went to the board in late summer and said, look, clearly there are some disagreements between how we see the world,” he said. “You need to think about what you want out of a leader, figure that out, and come talk to me about what that is and I can tell you whether I can be that or whether I want to be that. And that conversation culminated in where we are today.”
At last week’s meeting, the board voted 4-3 to accept the transition plan that Munn had created for his exit. As part of the plan, Munn will remain superintendent through the end of the current year, after which an acting or interim superintendent will be selected by the board as it searches for his replacement. Munn will be placed on leave next semester and will serve the interim in an advisory role until his contract expires at the end of June. He will also work with the district as a contractor for the first semester of the 2023-2024 school year to help the new superintendent.
Munn said he proposed the gradual exit because he thought it was the best way to ensure a smooth transition.
“Once it was clear to me that we had a conflict of vision, I thought the highest responsibility was to provide stability and clarity for kids,” he said. “I didn’t want us to be in a position where that conflict played out and was a distraction from the work.”
The board members who voted to accept the transition plan either declined to speak on the record or could not be reached for comment. Board member Nicelle Ortiz, who voted to accept the plan, said at the meeting that it was “time for a change for our district.”
“It’s time for healing,” she said. “It’s time for trust. And my vote will speak to those things.”
Others seemed dismayed that he would be leaving.
Gerkin, who voted not to accept the plan, declined to go into specifics about what caused the split vote and was more focused on how the board will proceed going forward.
“Ultimately we determined that the board and Rico have different visions for the future,” she told The Sentinel.
On Sunday morning, the board members met in executive session along with APS chief personnel officer Damon Smith, legal counsel Brandon Eyre and outside consultant A.J. Crabill to receive legal advice about the superintendent search.
Gerkin told The Sentinel that after the meeting she expects the board to name an interim superintendent shortly.
“We want to go as quickly as we can but also want to take the time that we need to ensure we’re doing it well,” she said.
The transition plan recommends that the board name current chief of staff Mark Seglem as interim superintendent, noting that he has a wealth of experience with the district and will not be pursuing the permanent role.
It’s currently unclear whether the board can appoint someone or whether it would need to hold a formal vote in public session (boards cannot vote in executive session). The board is having its second regular meeting of the month on Tuesday; currently nothing about the transition is on the agenda. (Update: on Monday, an action item was added to the agenda saying that the board will vote to announce the interim superintendent finalist.)
The board will have another special meeting next Sunday where it will begin receiving professional development training for best practices around a superintendent search, Gerkin said. After that, she said it hopes to start sharing more information publicly so people will know how they can get involved.
Finding a new superintendent will likely take time
In the transition plan, Munn emphasized that the school board will need to get started on the search right away and should be prepared to dedicate a significant amount of time toward it in the coming months.
“The single most important decision a board of education makes is who its superintendent will be, point blank, period,” he said.
The plan cautioned that the board may struggle to find candidates that have the caliber of experience needed to lead a district of APS’ size and complexity, which could be exacerbated by the fact that at least several other metro area districts may be searching for superintendents at the same time.
The Mapleton, Englewood and Littleton school district superintendents have all announced their retirement, Munn said, though Englewood has already announced a replacement.
“And there’s always a couple you don’t know about,” he said.
In terms of qualities he’d like to see in his successor, Munn said that Aurora is a place where it’s important for the leader to have close connections to the city’s broad array of communities, from business leaders to newly arrived refugees.
“You need to have that ability to be comfortable in every room,” he said.
The ability to navigate complex financial situations is also key, something he mentioned at the board’s Dec. 6 meeting during a presentation about how the state budget for the upcoming year will affect the amount of funding the district should anticipate receiving.
“One of the things that’s important to remember is the job is not navigating the district’s budget,” he said. “This job is navigating this complexity.”
Some outside observers have raised concerns about the way the search process has started. Van Schoales, a senior policy director focused on education at the Keystone Policy Center, said the fact that the transition plan was accepted on a split vote sent a bad message to potential candidates.
“If I were (the APS board), regardless of how I felt about Rico, I would want to set up a situation in which we’re going to have the opportunity to have a really effective interim and send a signal that we’re going to get the best, brightest superintendent,” he said. “The way you signal that is to all be on the same page.”
Gerkin said that isn’t a concern she shares.
“It’s always easier if a vote is unanimous but I don’t think working together means you all have to think alike,” she said.
Now that the decision has been made, she said the board will speak as a whole going forward — something it has rarely done in the recent past.
“Once the vote is taken we’re going to speak with one voice,” she said.
Though initially critical of Munn early in his tenure when he led education reform nonprofit A+ Colorado, Schoales praised the work he has done over the years. He said his departure doesn’t come as a surprise.
“Rico has managed the district with a fairly steady hand,” he said. “I think the current school board has made that a lot harder, so it’s not surprising to me that they’re parting ways.”
He worries that APS will struggle to find a replacement of his caliber, drawing parallels between the district and the Aurora Police Department, which has struggled to find a suitable replacement after former APD chief Vanessa Wilson was fired by the city manager this spring. Wilson was heavily criticized for her efforts to reform the department by some of the conservative councilmembers elected last fall, and, in a lawsuit, she has alleged that her firing was politically motivated.
The department is on its second interim chief after an initial candidate search for her replacement fell apart. Two of three finalists dropped out of the running and the third did not garner enough support to get the job.
Despite his concerns, Schoales thinks the role could be perfect for someone who wants to make a real impact in students’ lives — people who aren’t in education for the money but for the opportunity to make a difference.
At APS, “there are lots of opportunities for improvement and change,” he said.