AURORA, Colo. — After serving the Aurora Public School District since 2013, Superintendent Rico Munn is stepping down.
The APS Board of Education voted 4-3 Tuesday to begin the transition to new leadership. Munn will serve out the remainder of his contract in a support role.
Denver7 morning anchor Nicole Brady sat down with Munn to talk about his tenure. Please note: The following is a transcript of that interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Nicole Brady: I think one of the questions your community no doubt has is, why are you leaving? And was this your decision?
Rico Munn: You know, it’s been a great honor serving this community, serving the kids in Aurora Public Schools. And right now we’re at a place where there’s a conflict of vision between myself and the board, and so it’s time to move on.
NB: When you say a conflict in vision, is a lot of that related to Blueprint APS, and some of the issues that really APS is dealing with a lot of districts are dealing with?
RM: I can't speak for the board, what I know is what you heard last night, there are four board members who believe that they'd like to see a change, that they'd like to see their vision come forward. And I look forward to hearing what that vision is.
NB: You're one of the only superintendents in the main metro school districts who is still here after the pandemic. Amost every other district has undergone a big transformation in terms of their leadership. What do you attribute to your ability to stay on the job?
RM: Everyone who's served in these positions, throughout some very difficult years in the pandemic, really faced difficult times. And different communities, I think, handled that in different ways. We were fortunate that our community really rallied around the very great work of our team. Within a very short window of time we created an online school, we handed out laptops, we stood up 16 locations to feed people and fed close to 2 million meals throughout the height of the pandemic. And I think that work to stay student-centered, to stay really focused on equity needs in our community allowed us to move forward with our community throughout that difficult period of time.
NB: I know you can't speak for your fellow superintendents, but I think there's a perception that a lot of them left during the pandemic because of the challenges of the pandemic. Why did you stay?
RM: I'm the son of an undocumented citizen, I'm the grandson of a convicted murderer. The fact that I could be in this position to serve a community and to have the opportunities that I've had is just something that I don't take for granted. And so I'm incredibly grateful for that opportunity.
NB: Tell me what you're most proud of having accomplished in almost 10 years.
RM: I came to the district in 2013. It was a year after the theater shooting. And a lot of great work had been done around healing and around reconciling by my predecessor and many people in the district. When I came to the district, it was time to refocus back on student performance and student academics. And over those years we've seen a significant improvement overall in our graduation rate, a decrease in our dropout rate, a decrease in the number of kids who are engaged with law enforcement, and overall positive improvement in our academic picture. The pandemic has definitely been a setback to some of that work and something that we need to recover from. But I know that we have the strength and the resilience and the team in place to do that.
NB: Something I alluded to earlier is that APS is facing a lot of challenges that other districts are also facing with enrollment issues, losing students. I know the district did a rebranding over the summer in hopes of retaining some families there because a lot of students do choose to go to schools that are not APS schools. Why do you think that's happening?
RM: Well, I think the greatest challenge that districts are facing is a decline in birth rates. That's kind of the primary driver. But then there are the other issues you've talked about, as far as challenges with demographic shifts, challenges with cost of living driving people out of inner city cores, those are also significant challenges. We’ve identified that we have a number of students who may live on our borders, who may go to a school that may be physically closer in Cherry Creek or Denver, or they may choose schools that have different specific models, which is why in our blueprint APS plan, we provided some of those choices, and really building those to let students know that you can have that opportunity in the Aurora Public Schools system as well.
NB: Is that something you felt the district needed to do, to repurpose schools in this way?
RM: Well, I didn't feel that, that's what our community told us. We spent three to four years doing community engagement, doing focus groups, and feedback surveys, and interviews with community members. And one of the things we heard loud and clear was that our community wanted more choices. And we were also very happy to hear that they wanted more choices provided by the district. And so we were responding to that interest, to that need.
NB: APS is having to close some schools, as many other districts in the area are. Is that just inevitable right now?
RM: It's an incredibly difficult and painful process and decision. We have to recognize is that we have an infrastructure that was built over time, some buildings from the 1960s, from the 70s, and the 80s to serve different needs that existed at the time. As a community grows and matures in certain areas, you have to have dynamic changes to respond to the needs of today's community. And there's definitely pain involved with that. But if you're going to serve the community, you're going to do so in a way that is centered on equity, you have to look at who you're serving today, not who you were built to serve 30 or 40 years ago.
NB: Another issue that has become a challenge for all districts is hiring.
RM: There's an incredible shortage across the entire education sector. We've seen that across many industry sectors where you know, there's longer lines at your local coffee shop, there's fewer people who are taking certain positions. And one of the challenges I think, is that people are really looking for much more flexibility in their work day, in their work hours, looking for opportunities where they can work from home or where they can choose their own hours. Classroom teaching doesn't really provide that opportunity for the most part. And so we're seeing a decline in the number of people who are interested in that kind of work structure and that creates a real stress in the system. But that's happening across all of K-12.
NB: So you don't necessarily think this is something unique to education or the desire for people to get into education, it's more about just the realities of the job?
RM: I think the reality is that we're seeing a shift in the workforce post-pandemic. It's hitting education particularly hard, because we have a lot of places where we don't have that flexibility. If you have a room full of 5 year olds, you need somebody in front of that room.
NB: I don't think I realized you were an attorney, and I know you served on the Colorado Board of Education. What got you into education?
RM: I've got a degree in Secondary Education. I've always stayed involved in education policy. I was on a governor's cabinet heading the Department of Higher Education, as you talked about, on the State Board of Education. It is a fundamental human right, I firmly believe that. And the work to fight and advocate for kids, particularly kids like we serve in Aurora to protect that human right, is what drives me.
NB: You lead one of the most, if not the most diverse district in the area, with many immigrant families, minority students, families from different countries. Has that been one of the biggest challenges for you, leading a district that's so diverse, perhaps with different needs?
RM: I talk about it in terms of complexity. We come from 130 countries, speak 160 languages, there's a level of complexity there that is not the same in other school districts. And so whenever you do the work, you have to take into account that complexity.
NB: What is your advice for the person who replaces you?
RM: Well, that's a big question. It's a wonderful community and wonderful kids who deserve the best. They deserve a clear, strong, compelling vision for how to move things forward and a focus on how to accelerate learning every single day for those students. And really, staying connected to the community, listening to that community and responding to those needs. And not just to some voices, but really gathering input from all stakeholders is incredibly important. The superintendency is an incredibly difficult job. And across the country, we are unfortunately seeing a significant number of superintendents who are moving on or who are in types of conflicts with boards and communities. And so there's a real challenge with finding people who have the background and the skill set to really execute that at a high level. It's going to be really important that communities come around those people and really hold superintendents and hold boards accountable for having that clear focus, and for making sure that they stay focused on the right things.
NB: How important is the community in determining the next superintendent? In Aurora, we've seen quite a bit of discussion about the police chief search in that city and the process not being open enough. Do you think the community deserves — and do you think they'll get — a say in who is going to lead this district and the type of person that it needs to be?
RM: You clearly need to have a very open, transparent process where you're really deeply engaging with the community around what that future looks like, what are the priorities for the future, and a profile for the person who serves in that role. There are also some really key professional skill sets that have to come into play, and so you need to have a mix of things that come together for that selection, but the community is certainly a central part of that conversation.
NB: What's next for you. It sounds you're not retiring yet. Do you intend to stay in education? Or have you thought about what's next?
RM: I have two kids in high school, I'm nowhere close to retirement. Next steps for me, I don't know. You know, I'll spend time with my family and enjoy kind of talking with them about how best to next serve this community, a community that I love, that I feel very connected to, and we'll see what the future holds.