Updated: Aurora School Board Calls Off Special Meeting After Tensions Between Superintendent And Union Publicly Boil Over

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Rico Munn, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, at Hinkley High School Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. School systems in Aurora, Denver and Cherry Creek are working with Gary Community Investments to offer free virus testing for school teachers and staff ahead of the start of the academic year.

Update, 2/22/2021, 5:39 p.m.: Aurora Public Schools has cancelled the special meeting that was scheduled for Tuesday. School district officials said in a release that "[b]oard members have decided to take a step back and work collaboratively to resolve any outstanding questions or concerns. Board members are committed to focusing on their work at hand and continuing to move the district forward."

Original story:

The Aurora Public Schools Board of Education has called a special session to discuss a “personnel” matter involving longtime district Superintendent Rico Munn.

At issue are two letters sent earlier in the week, one penned by the board of the Aurora Education Association and another in response which the superintendent sent to all staff. Each letter leveled acrimonious accusations of deceit or slander against the other party.

Board treasurer Marques Ivey said the meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 4:30  p.m., doesn’t have an agenda but he’d like there to be a discussion around the letters, both of which he found concerning.

“I think if the board were simply to just sit on that and not address it, then that could set a precedent that these things are OK,” he said. “I guess the question is, what's the response, what’s the right thing to do? Was it right to send it out to all staff? I don't know yet.”

He “doubts” there has been any discussion about firing Munn by any board members, but hopes the meeting will result in “what the next steps will be in order to move forward.” The special board meeting was originally to be a private, executive session, but Munn made it public.

Munn is in his eighth year as the head of the district.

A string of resignations has left five of Colorado’s largest school districts looking for new superintendents this school year, including Denver, Jefferson County, Poudre, Cherry Creek and Douglas County.

Van Schoales, president of the education advocacy group A+ Colorado, surmises that the pressures on superintendents are multiplied in Colorado because it is a local control state. Most of the decision-making about what learning looks like rests on superintendents’ shoulders, compared to many other states where responsibility lies with a state education department or health department or the governor.

School leaders have told Schoales decision-making around COVID-19 is taking up a third of their time, in addition to addressing all the other challenges students and families have.

"In some ways, it's no wonder, what is a really hard job has gotten 10 times harder," he said.

Teacher union leadership has increasingly been at odds with Superintendent Munn over how learning should proceed during the pandemic. Tensions boiled over on Monday, Feb. 15, after the union’s board sent a sharply-worded letter about Munn to the school board. It accused the superintendent of forcing major changes “without regard to concern from teachers, building leaders and the community.”

The letter also characterizes Munn as “seeking out only information, resources, and experts that reinforce his ‘belief’ even when the science, best practices and voices from stakeholders disagree” in his desire to get students back in the classroom during the pandemic.

Munn’s strongly-worded rebuttal came two days later and called the union board letter “dishonest and inappropriate.”

He called the union’s description of how he made decisions around COVID-19 safety protocols “slanderous.” In an interview, Munn stressed his letter was not directed at the whole union but “a small group of people,” the union’s board, and given the gravity of the accusations, required a forceful response.

“I think it's particularly dangerous that they wrote a letter that alleged that we were not following the data and following the science and protecting our staff, our students and they even alleged our entire community.”

Munn said the district’s safety measures are informed by and comply with health guidance from local and state health agencies. He said the leadership of Tri-County Health has met with the union’s leadership several times.

Aurora Public Schools returned to the classroom in January in a hybrid model as the county is in level yellow on the state’s color-coded restriction dial, which suggests in-person learning. A survey of parents, students and school employees shows the majority favors full in-person learning, though more parents than teachers leaned that way. The union’s board labeled the survey as “dubious data” with a narrow focus that did not allow educators to truly express needs or concerns.

The union board’s other grievances accuse Munn of not visiting classrooms all year, which Munn said is “inaccurate and offensive,” and that he hasn’t solicited their input since winter break. That he ignores union input and doesn’t involve teachers in decisions and is “deceptive” in how he talks of collaboration with the union.

Munn’s letter states he’s had regular meetings with Aurora Education Association leadership. And he outlines the ways the district has sought other views, including teachers, parents, students and staff through surveys, meeting with parent interest groups, building staff listening sessions and teacher surveys.

“What is clear is that the only voice they want you to hear is that of the AEA [Aurora Education Association Board],” he wrote.

The union’s letter “insists” that the district continues with Fridays as asynchronous days (no direct instruction) so teachers can plan and prepare throughout the end of the year. The union said many teachers are doing two jobs at the same time — teaching online and in-person — and the heavy workload requires more planning time.

The district had notified the community that until spring break, with the input of teachers and the union’s board, it will study whether there is an alternative to asynchronous Fridays. Munn said in surveys with parents and students and an analysis of attendance shows Fridays have not been working well for students.  

“They (union leadership) basically said, ‘you shouldn't even look at it’ was out of bounds to me,’” he told CPR News.

Munn said he’s gotten letters of support from staff, including union members, regarding his letter. Union president Bruce Wilcox could not be reached for comment.