Looking ahead

Union-backed candidates prevail in Aurora — and all sides downplay prospect of big immediate change

Union President Bruce Wilcox, far left, addressing four school board candidates: Debbie Gerkin, Kevin Cox, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey, as they awaited election results Tuesday. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

One day after school board candidates backed by the teachers union swept into power in Aurora, the district superintendent and leaders of charter schools he recruited downplayed potential conflicts and committed to working with the new members.

Union leaders made similar comments Wednesday, expressing optimism that the newly elected members and Superintendent Rico Munn will forge a fruitful relationship.

The four candidates who will make up a majority on the seven-member school board have been critical of charter schools in interviews with Chalkbeat and candidate questionnaires. But in public comments, including during campaign forums, several of the candidates expressed openness to working with some charter schools depending on the circumstances.

That has left some uncertainty about what the election might mean for charter schools, which are a key piece of Munn’s recent reform efforts in Aurora, and the district’s strategies overall.

The newly elected school board members emphasized Tuesday they want to work with the existing leadership and aren’t planning major changes immediately.

Munn told Chalkbeat on Wednesday he needs to hear from the new board before contemplating any shifts to district priorities.

“In our reform strategy we’ve laid out at least nine different strategies that we’ve been implementing across different schools,” Munn said. “Our current board, and I’m sure our new board, may not like every single one of those. But that’s just an ongoing conversation we have to have.”

Put on notice by state education officials in 2010 for low performance, Aurora Public Schools had little choice but to embark on reforms to better serve its diverse population, which has large numbers of black and Latino students, and young refugees fleeing strife around the world.

Munn, hired in 2013, has overseen an approach the district calls “disruptive innovation.” Along with recruiting high-performing charters to the district, Aurora has adopted a new system for hiring meant to strengthen its principal corps, given schools more control over budgets and created an “innovation zone” providing schools within it greater freedom to experiment.

The district’s efforts have attracted interest from private foundations, education reform groups — and a gradually greater investment of attention and money in school board races, a trend that’s nearly a decade old in neighboring Denver.

Two years ago, reform groups from the left and right and a more engaged teachers union sought to influence the Aurora election. The result was split — two incumbents prevailed, and one of two conservative-backed reform candidates won.

Most of this year’s investment from the reform side came from an independent expenditure committee tied to Democrats For Education Reform. The reform community’s two preferred candidates —Miguel In Suk Lovato and Gail Pough — finished fifth and sixth in the race for the four seats. As of the last big campaign finance report deadline, a committee bankrolled by the teachers union had spent even more to help the union-endorsed slate, billed “Aurora’s A-Team.”

Union leadership and the board candidates on the winning slate have expressed concerns about Aurora Public Schools’ decision to close a struggling school and replace it with a charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep. Also coming in for their criticism: Munn’s invitation to DSST, a high performing charter network, to open in Aurora, and his offer to pay for half the cost of a new building.

The DSST deal is expected to be done after the current board votes on the final contract on Nov. 14 — their last meeting before the new board is sworn in.

Bill Kurtz, the CEO of DSST, said Wednesday the charter school network doesn’t have any concerns about working with board members elected as a union-backed slate.

“We’re excited to meet the new school board in Aurora, and excited about our work in Aurora,” Kurtz said. “Like any school board, we will work hard to start to build a strong relationship with the new board to collaborate so we can best serve students in Aurora … Our view of working with the school board in Aurora is no different today than it was yesterday.”

James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, voiced a similar sentiment.

“I don’t have any concerns at this point,” Cryan said. “We’re proud to be a part of that community.”

Others who support some of Munn’s strategies are urging patience. Tyler Sandberg, a co-founder and senior policy adviser at Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform nonprofit that also invested in the race, said education reform policy discussions are in the early stages in Aurora.

“Charters are only just beginning to demonstrate to the community the quality they can bring,” Sandberg said. “I’m hopeful that the new board members are going to go to the community and realize how empowering some of these charter schools have been for these students. I’m hopeful schools like Rocky Mountain Prep and DSST are going to be able to make a pretty good impression.”

Sandberg also said that reform groups were at a disadvantage against unions which have “built in ground game and funding structure.”

The state teachers union, Colorado Education Association, invested heavily in Aurora after new leadership at the local level began to highlight the concerns of educators including the charter conversion and the DSST invitation, union officials say.

“The community didn’t want to become Denver East,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, a reference to the charter-friendly district next door. “They want to create their own vision of their quality public schools and they want a healthy relationship with the school district, board of education and community.”

Munn has repeatedly expressed a similar message — that Aurora’s school improvement strategies are not a carbon copy of Denver’s and that they are tailored to Aurora’s needs.

Aurora showed enough improvement to pull itself off the state’s watch list for persistent low performance, sparing itself from a state-sanctioned improvement plan. Outside groups, however, including education reform-friendly groups, have complained that the district isn’t doing nearly enough, citing disturbingly low academic proficiency and other troubling statistics.

Although union members and supporters had plenty to celebrate after Tuesday’s election, not all of organizers’ goals were accomplished. Vicky McRoberts, a former union leader who helped work on the Aurora campaign for the teachers union, said Tuesday night that ambitious goals to engage teachers in the campaign fell short.

But she said volunteers who did help campaign were successful in connecting with voters on issues polls showed they cared about — such as increasing career and technical opportunities for students.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teacher’s union, said Wednesday that teachers from outside Aurora helped the campaign, as well.

“We also had more teachers than in the past from our own district,” Wilcox said. “A lot of our teachers did more that one event. I think teachers here in the district recognized that this was an important election.”

Wilcox said the union can’t control what the slate of new board members will do, but said teachers and the union just wanted more collaboration with the district, and to feel that their opinion will be heard.

“I don’t anticipate this board to make any sweeping changes,” Wilcox said. “I’m hoping this board can establish a relationship with Mr. Munn and move forward. We’re at a great crossroads. Our long range plans have come to an end. What better way to start that work moving forward.”

open discussion

In renewing superintendent’s contract, Aurora board president says he didn’t run to ‘fire Rico’

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school board had a last-minute discussion Tuesday about the superintendent’s contract before a 6-1 vote to approve a two-year contract extension.

It was the first time every board member spoke publicly about the process, the district’s future, and their confidence in Superintendent Rico Munn. Many praised the superintendent’s skills, but then talked about concerns that the district’s culture needs to change.

“Open communication and trust are sorely lacking,” said board member Debbie Gerkin. “We need a superintendent who will dramatically change the climate. Is that Rico Munn? It might be. I want it to be, but so far, I have to be honest, I haven’t seen that particular skill set demonstrated and that concerns me.”

The board had announced more than a month ago that it was renewing the contract. Two weeks ago, the board gave a nod, without public discussion, to the draft contract extension, with the final vote set for Tuesday.

When it came time to vote, board members, the majority of whom were elected on a union-backed slate in November, said they wanted to go on the record with their thinking. Board president Marques Ivey said he had received calls from voters who said they thought he had run for the school board in order “to fire Rico.”

Ivey disputed that idea and asked voters to give the new board a chance to do their job, assuring the public the board would not be a rubber stamp for Munn’s ideas.

“The concerns you’ve expressed to us and your anger, it’s felt by this board,” Ivey said. “We know about it. Believe me, we have discussed it.”

Board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero, the sole vote against extending Munn’s contract, said she has been “extremely frustrated” recently.

“I ran on transparency, and it’s obvious that’s lacking,” Armstrong-Romero said. “I am concerned about that.”

Munn was first hired in 2013, and his contract is set to expire this summer.

The four union-allied board members ran in part on their opposition to the expansion of charter schools, as well as on greater equity and transparency.

Union leaders and many teachers had been vocal in their disapproval of Munn’s reform plans, especially two involving charter schools. In 2016, the district closed a low-performing elementary, and brought in a Denver charter school to take over the school.

Then later that year, Munn invited high-performing DSST to open a charter school in Aurora, offering to pay for at least half the costs of a new building to house them with bond money voters later approved.

At the last board meeting, two weeks ago, one teacher who spoke during public comment told the board that he was disappointed members were planning to renew Munn’s contract.

“Frankly we voted you guys in, or four of you, in the hopes that this would change,” the teacher told the board. “To hear that you’re keeping the leadership in place is very disappointing.”

The new board, in its short time in office, has had disagreements with Munn. Earlier this year, the board rejected Munn’s proposed turnaround plan for an elementary school that earned the lowest quality rating this year. The board also criticized Munn recently for the process around budget cuts at the district level.

Veteran board members said they felt confident Munn could improve on the changes the board requested.

shot callers

Rico Munn’s inner circle: Meet the team leading Aurora’s district improvements

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

In five years as Aurora superintendent, Rico Munn has brought lots of change to a district that is one of the most diverse in the state and now gentrifying.

The district has become a place that is more open to charter schools, that has more flexibility for schools, and that has recently shown enough improvement to get off of the state’s watchlist for low-performance.

Recently, more change came with the election of four new union-backed union-backed board members after a campaign that saw more outside money than in any recent years.

The district still faces significant challenges, like declining enrollment and the task of improving academic achievement at several schools that are low-performing, including Aurora Central High School, which is now on a state-ordered plan for improvement.

The school board has offered Munn a two-year contract extension. A vote on that contract is set for Tuesday. Munn recently filled one of his cabinet positions after having an interim in the position since September when former chief academic officer, John Youngquist, left to return to Denver Public Schools.

With new members on Munn’s leadership team, officials are embarking on several significant projects, including writing a budget for next school year and working on a process to create a new strategic plan to guide the district through enrollment changes. Some schools have declining enrollment while the city rapidly expands on its eastern boundaries.

Here is a look at the seven people who report directly to Munn who are working on those projects, based on information provided by the district.

Marcelina Rivera

Marcelina Rivera, chief of strategic management
Salary: $160,121
Job description: To provide leadership, direction, and guidance for the chiefs of finance, human resources, support services, and the director of accountability and research. Leads the work related to how human and material resources are used to support the teaching and learning initiatives in the district. Develops clear goals, processes, timelines, and messaging to drive resource support for the academic improvement of all students. Aligns work with the chief academic officer. Drives the work in the school district’s strategic plan.

Bio: Rivera took the Aurora position in 2015. She has a law degree and previously worked at Yale Law School. Most recently, Rivera owned her own consulting firm, was an adjunct lecturer in English as a Second Language at the University of Denver, served as executive director of the Latino Community Foundation of Colorado, and was assistant superintendent and general counsel to The New America Schools.

Andre Wright, chief academic officer

Andre Wright. (Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools).

Salary: $171,000
Job description: Responsible for providing leadership, direction, and guidance for the strategic initiatives and day-to-day operations of the Division of Equity in Learning. Develops clear goals, processes, timelines, and messaging to drive academic improvement for all students. Leads the work to provide school-specific support to roll out district initiatives. Aligns work with the chief of strategic management on use of human and material resources.

Bio: Wright was appointed interim chief academic officer in September. Prior to the appointment, Wright served as a director of learning, overseeing a group of 10 schools since July 2014. Before coming to Aurora, Wright was area executive director for the Northeast Learning Community in the Atlanta-area Fulton County School System. He also served as a principal, instructional leader and assistant principal and first began his education career teaching middle school language arts.

Damon Smith

Damon Smith, chief personnel officer
Salary: $162,614
Job description: Responsible for coordinating all employment issues for the district, including overseeing all personnel budgets, troubleshooting issues, negotiating contracts with the local bargaining unit, recruiting, training, allocating, evaluating, and terminating staff. Also responsible for writing, revising, and rolling out policy and procedures, and representing the Human Resources Department on committees, boards, and councils.

Bio: Smith took over his current position in 2011, but has worked in public education for 26 years, serving as a school social worker, dean of students, assistant principal, principal, and central office administrator in the Denver and Aurora school districts. Smith earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and master’s degree from the University of Denver. Smith is also a graduate of Aurora Public Schools and has been a member of the Aurora community since 1975.

Patti Moon

Patti Moon, chief communications officer
Salary: $136,171
Job description: Provide leadership in developing, achieving, and maintaining proactive planning and communication outputs for district initiatives. Continually coordinate, analyze, and evaluate complex ideas and situations and communicate these items in easy-to-understand language. Also required to effectively communicate, negotiate, and advise. Also provides communications or public relations training, counsel, and advice to schools and departments.

Bio: Moon joined Aurora as the public information officer in March 2014. She was named the chief communications officer in February 2017. Prior to working for the district, Moon was a television journalist who worked in Colorado Springs, Oklahoma City, Chicago, and Washington D.C. She was a TV reporter and anchor working on stories on a wide range of topics including education, health, and crime. Moon earned both her bachelor and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University. She is fluent in Korean and speaks French conversationally. Moon is a Colorado native who graduated from Lakewood High School.

Brandon Eyre

Brandon Eyre, legal counsel
Salary: $162,614
Job description: Responsible for providing legal services to the Board of Education and district administration. Supervises outside counsel doing the same. Communicate to appropriate staff any changes, updates, and recent interpretations of school and employment law. Conduct legal research and draft legal documents including contracts, policies, and correspondence. Supervises the district’s internal auditor.

Bio: Eyre came to Aurora in 2012 from Oregon where he was a partner at Baum, Smith and Eyre, LLC. Eyre’s practice focused primarily on municipal law and served clients throughout eastern Oregon. He represented public sector clients such as the La Grande School District, Union Baker Education Service District and the cities of Elgin, North Powder and Joseph, Oregon. Brandon earned his degrees from Brigham Young University.

Anthony Sturges, chief operations officer

Anthony Sturges

Salary: $182,497
Job description: Responsible for providing administrative and logistical direction and leadership to create and maintain safe, adaptable, and highly functional school and work environments. Serves as incident commander of the incident response team and is the district’s liaison to City of Aurora first responder groups including police and fire departments. Supervises the operational activities of athletics and activities, construction management and support, information technology, maintenance and operations, planning, security, transportation, and facility rental.

Bio: Sturges is a graduate of Hinkley High School in Aurora. He started working as a U.S. History and American Government teacher at Denver’s East High School in 1988 and came back to Aurora in 1993 to teach Honors U.S. History at Rangeview High School and then served as the Dean of Students at Aurora Central High School. From 1998 to 2002, he served as assistant principal for Thunder Ridge High School. In 2002, he became Aurora’s human resources director. Sturges has been in his current position since 2005.

Brett Johnson

Brett Johnson, chief financial officer
Salary: $162,993
Job description: Responsible for advising the superintendent and school board on the financial and budget matters of the district. Also prepares and administers the district budget, guides the development of long-term capital financing methods, directs and supervises all business or finance functions including, but not limited to, risk management, budgeting, and grants management while adhering to district policies and procedures.

Bio: Johnson took over the district’s finance department in March 2017. Prior to working for the Aurora district, Johnson served as the director of the office of major project development for the Colorado Department of Transportation. At CDOT, he explored new methods to finance and procure major transportation projects. He has also worked as the deputy treasurer for Colorado and as the finance manager for the Governor’s Energy Office. During his time as deputy treasurer, Johnson focused on banking, investment, and accounting services. He earned his bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from the University of Colorado.