Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn is seen before a brief press conference outside of the UC Health Science and Innovation Lab, April 25 at the Aurora Science and Tech Campus.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn will transition to a supporting role next semester as the district searches for a new superintendent for the upcoming school year, district officials announced Dec. 2.

Munn has been at the helm of Colorado’s fifth-largest school district for more than nine years. His current contract expires at the end of this school year, and he will not be seeking to extend it.

In a news release posted on the district’s website last week, APS school board president Debbie Gerkin said that at its next meeting on Dec. 6, the board will vote on a transition agreement plan and will start the search for a new superintendent later this month.

In a 4-3 on Dec. 6, the school board voted to accept the transition plan, with some expressing consternation that Munn is leaving and others saying that the district needed a change.

“I am incredibly proud of the difficult and crucially important work that we have done together to accelerate learning for every APS student every day,” Munn said in a statement.

“I thank the community for allowing me to serve our diverse and dynamic students.”

Munn will transition into a support role starting next semester and will serve the district in a modified schedule through the end of the 2022-2023 school year, according to the release.

 An acting superintendent will be named for the second semester of the current school year, and Munn has agreed to support the district in the first semester of the 2023-2024 school year as the new superintendent comes onboard.

In the release, Gerkin thanked Munn for his time with the district and said that more information about the search will be shared as soon as it is available.

“On behalf of the Board of Education, I would like to sincerely thank Superintendent Munn for his many years of service to the Aurora Public Schools and his continued dedication to this community,” she said.

Except for mentioning that his contract expires, the release did not provide a specific reason for why Munn is stepping down now. It did not clarify whether the interim superintendent will be someone currently on APS’ leadership team or someone brought in from outside.

District representatives declined to provide more detail Friday evening on how the transition process will work, and Gerkin declined to speak until after the Dec. 6 meeting.

“Since the APS Board of Education is handling the transition for Superintendent Munn, I am unfortunately not able to provide any additional information beyond the letter that was sent to our community this afternoon,” spokesperson Corey Christiansen said in an email.

Munn joined APS in 2013, succeeding Air Force veteran and current Wings Over the Rockies president John Barry. Prior to joining APS, he was a litigator at a national law firm for over a decade. He formerly served on the board of the ACLU of Colorado and was on the board of governors for the Colorado State University System from 2012 to 2020. He was a finalist in 2020 for the Green-Garner Award, the nation’s highest urban education honor, and in 2019 was named Colorado superintendent of the year.

Munn will be the latest in a number of metro area superintendents who have left their positions since 2020. Of Colorado’s five largest school districts, he is the only current superintendent who was in place before the pandemic started.

Previous Cherry Creek superintendent Scott Siegfried retired at the end of the previous school year after just three years at the helm, citing a need to spend more time with his family.

Former Jeffco Public Schools superintendent Jason Glass left in the fall of 2020 to take a state commissioner job in Kentucky. Former Denver Public Schools superintendent Susana Cordova also left in 2020 to take a position in Dallas after an at-times turbulent two year stint.

Former Douglas County Public Schools Superintendent Corey Wise was fired without cause by the school board in February following the election of a slate of new, conservative-learning members who criticized his actions during the pandemic. He is currently suing the district for wrongful termination.

As for teachers, the last few years have been uniquely stressful for superintendents as schools have dealt with the ongoing public health and academic effects of the pandemic. Schools have also borne the brunt of clashes over issues such as masking and how or to what extent schools should teach students about topics such as race and LGBTQ issues that have turned into pitched partisan battles.

It’s unclear whether this has translated into superintendents leaving at higher rates than usual. A RAND survey from earlier this year found that 13% of superintendents left their jobs between 2021 and 2022, a rate the researchers did not believe was above average, but that half of superintendents surveyed said they were considering leaving or were not sure how long they would remain.

Unlike some other metro area districts, APS has not been the site of significant controversy over its pandemic response or culture war issues such as whether “critical race theory” is being taught in the classroom.

Along with the pandemic, the district’s main source of upheaval in recent years has involved the implementation of Blueprint APS, the district’s new long term facilities plan which has involved the closure and repurposing of some neighborhood schools throughout the district.

The plan has been unpopular with a number of families and teachers in schools that have been closed or are scheduled for future closure, some of whom have blamed Munn specifically for the decisions. The district has maintained that closures of schools with low enrollment are a painful necessity to best steward the district’s resources and prevent inequities from developing between schools of different sizes.

Though avoiding the level of rancor that has developed in some other districts, Munn has at times clashed with school board members and the teacher’s union, particularly over pandemic school operations and Blueprint APS.

On Monday, current Aurora Education Association president Linnea Reed-Ellis said she hopes that the union has a voice in the search for Munn’s successor, and that it’s important that the district selects a superintendent “that reflects our community and our community’s values.”

“Right now we’re really listening for and hoping for educator perspective and voice in each step in the decision making process,” she said.

Munn’s tenure at APS has been bookended by crises. He started his stint as superintendent in July 2013, just a year after the Aurora theater shooting that left the city, and the school district, reeling. The last several years have been consumed by the pandemic, as the district has worked to address first how to teach tens of thousands of students as the virus raged and later how to manage its ongoing behavioral and academic effects.

During the pandemic, APS became a remote school almost overnight and was also the largest distributor of free meals in Aurora for almost a year as its nutrition department worked to meet students’ basic needs. The first semester of the 2020-2021 school year was particularly challenging for the district, as it struggled to balance the desire for as much in-person learning as possible with health concerns. As a result, students ended up shifting between different modes of learning multiple times during the school year.

The pandemic led to some of the biggest clashes Munn had with both the school board and the union. At times in the fall of 2021, the board overrode his recommendations and decided to keep students in online learning out of an abundance of caution. In the spring, a dispute with the AEA boiled over regarding potential changes to the schedule, with the union accusing Munn of being unreceptive and him accusing it of being dishonest.

In a report compiled last year analyzing the lessons learned from the pandemic response, the district found that it had been flexible and resilient in the face of tumult but that students, particularly students of color and students from low-income families, struggled and will need targeted support in the following years to make up for the losses.

“We will not fully understand and appreciate the impact of COVID-19 on our kids and on this district for many years to come,” Munn said during a school board meeting last summer.

The story of APS’ trajectory during Munn’s tenure has been one of both rise and fall. Earlier this year the district made the decision to implement a new logo,partly fueled by the rationale that APS is not the same district as it was in the 2000s and early 2010s.

According to data presented to the school board in June, in 2010 APS had a graduation rate of 45.5% and a dropout rate of 6.9%. In 2021, its graduation rate was 76.2% and its dropout rate was 1.6%.

“We are not the district we were in the past,” district communications officer Patti Moon said at the meetings.

Munn’s biography on the district website states that since 2013, “APS has eliminated the graduation equity gap and experienced a 25% overall increase in graduation rates, a 50% decline in dropout rates, a 70% decline in expulsions, a 60% decrease in referrals to law enforcement and an overall increase in academic achievement, student growth and college readiness indicators.”

During that time, the district has also earned its first state athletic championship in over two decades and gained another Colorado teacher of the year, its first since 2012.

At the same time, APS has struggled with issues including an increase in youth violence in Aurora, the nationwide learning loss caused by the effects of the pandemic, and schools that have struggled for years to improve academically. It has also weathered its fair share of scandals, including a 2019 incident where a dean at an APS school brought a loaded gun to school and threatened staff and a $5.5 million settlement to two students who were sexually abused by a Rangeview High School employee.

One of the district’s biggest current challenges is how to respond to declining enrollment in the district. While enrollment is increasing along the E-470 corridor due to development, enrollment in the district overall has been on a downward trajectory and in the past five years has lost 3,600 students.

The district is currently in the process of implementing Blueprint APS, its new long-range facilities plan, in response to this trend. The plan has attracted heavy criticism, particularly in the past year after the district announced the scheduled closures of Paris and Sable elementary schools, which were originally not on a list of district schools under consideration for being repurposed.

Blueprint began in 2018 and will be one of Munn’s major marks on the district. How a new superintendent views the plan, which is only partially complete, could significantly impact the district and is likely to be a key source of discussion during the selection process.

Aurora Public Schools is the most diverse school district in the state, with a student body that is over 56% Hispanic and 17% Black. Students in the district come from over 130 countries and speak 160 languages, and over 42% are learning English as a second language.

Munn, who is the district’s 16th superintendent, is the first Black person to lead APS. During his tenure the district has worked to increase the hiring and retention of employees of color, which has been shown to improve outcomes for students. Following the protests for racial justice that swept the nation in 2020, Munn said he realized the district needed to be more vocal about why equity work was important.

“We have done really good work trying to elevate voices and trying to identify and speak to key equity issues,” Munn told The Sentinel in an interview last year. “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.”

In a guest column for The Sentinel in June 2020, Munn wrote about his “complicated” relationship with America as a Black man, where he is “outraged by injustice but never surprised by it.”

He discussed the lessons that his father, an immigrant from the West Indies who died earlier this year, taught him about life.

“He taught me I would always have to fight for what was mine,” Munn said. “He taught me that the system, and its enforcers, would actively oppose me. He taught me to fight for my life every day. Thankfully, and most importantly, he taught me that my faith and my education would be my greatest weapons.”

That mix of pragmatism and optimism has been a throughline throughout Munn’s time at APS, in many ways mirroring the trajectory of Aurora itself. What outlook the school board will search for in its next superintendent, and how they will lead, remains to be seen.

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Rose McBain
Rose McBain
1 month ago

Good riddance! It was long overdue. He’s disrespectful to his board, the community and dances around answers instead of being honest and truthful. We need an educator not a lawyer as a Superintendent!

Ron Paz
Ron Paz
1 month ago

Headline says he steps aside? Do you have proof or a statement saying he stepped aside and not asked to resign? I got the letter from aps and it seems he’s on administrative leave starting January.
Either way, he’s on his way out and I think a change was much needed. Staff morale is down and there’s many trust issues just by watching and listening to the speakers in the board meetings.

Dean68
Dean68
1 month ago
Reply to  Ron Paz

Did you happen to watch the city council meeting last Monday. His Kabuki theater performance informed the city council with his data and all his updated information. And we are to actually believe this guy is capable to make things work? When asked some straight -forward questions about his statement of racism in APS the guy had a hard time answering the question and did everything but give a knowledgeable answer to the question. What a joke!

Rose McBain
Rose McBain
1 month ago
Reply to  Dean68

Was it this meeting? I can’t find the clip where he presented https://www.auroratv.org/video/city-council-11-28-22

Karen Nerberger
Karen Nerberger
1 month ago

Let’s see. Grad rates up over 30%. Dropout rate down. Referrals to cops down. Sounds like the only thing he didn’t do was bow down to the idiots on the Board and in the union.

Jake
Jake
1 month ago

Wow, didn’t see this one coming but sure have been waiting for the day. This is something the community has been advocating and wanting for as long as I could remember, long over due! APS needs to feel that seat with someone who understands and champions a “TRUE” student first approach, someone who values employees and longevity, someone who believes in the families and someone who welcomes community. Let’s hope the students, parents, employees and community all have an input in the search. Just when I thought all hope was lost!

Jake
Jake
1 month ago
Reply to  Jake

Fill^

Michelle Evans
Michelle Evans
1 month ago

Rico Munn raised more money and passed more bonds than any of his predecessors and the numbers prove it. I went to the board meetings. The APS school board is a mess. I was appalled. They don’t even know what is going on. The are the reason they are losing him. It is Aurora Schools loss. The board president needs to go.