Aurora schools chief Rico Munn has been named Colorado’s Superintendent of the Year for 2019 by the Colorado Association of School Executives .

The first person of color to lead the almost 41,000-student district, Munn has faced challenging circumstances since taking the post in 2013.  

The district was on the state’s watchlist for poor performance when Munn started, but has since improved graduation rates and its overall state rating enough to escape that list and dodge state sanctions for low-performance.

As Aurora’s school enrollment has begun to decrease, Munn faces a new set of challenges related to the budget and long-term facilities needs.

In announcing the honor, the association also pointed to a reform framework Munn created “establishing an improvement timeline to keep things on track.” The school executives group highlighted the district’s improvements, including decreasing expulsions and suspensions since 2013.

“Having worked for and with Rico over the past several years, I can say that I’ve never met a more courageous and principled leader,” said Lisa Escárcega, the organization’s executive director. “He does what is right for kids even if that’s the unpopular or difficult decision, and is remarkably mindful in his approach to leading the school district. Rico is the last to seek credit for his work and accomplishments.”

In a written statement, Munn called Aurora, a “district with momentum” and praised others’ work.

“This award is a testament to the incredible work of our students, staff members, families, and community,” Munn said. “Aurora Public Schools is a truly unique and dynamic school district where I am honored to serve as superintendent every day.”

In the announcement, Marcelina Rivera, the district’s chief of strategic management, praised her boss’s efforts to change district culture, which has been a goal of the new school board. Board members at one point discussed creating rules for Munn around engaging the community in his decision-making, but instead committed to fostering collaboration in a decision that stressed a shared responsibility.

Earlier this year, the district’s school board approved a renewal of Munn’s contract through 2020, expressing concern about aspects of Munn’s leadership — but also confidence in him.

In Thursday’s announcement, Rivera highlighted Munn’s storytelling talent and his tradition of speaking to all district employees at the beginning of every year.

“Overwhelmingly, employees appreciate and look forward to his beginning-of-the-year sessions. They say his stories inspire them, help them make sense of the work the district is doing and how their work connects to it,” Rivera said, according to the announcement. “Rico knows that stories matter. He believes they can change our lives and drive real change — even when conventional methods have been tried and have failed to do either.”