Houston residents, school board curious about company's actions
By Elliot Mann
The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
About the Houston school district
Online schools: Minnesota Virtual Academy; Minnesota Center for Online Learning.
HOUSTON — Residents here are wondering if a company called Ambient Learning, with two Houston public school administrators at the helm, should have notified school board members when they entered a contract with Madelia, Minn., schools in February to research the feasibility of online education.
The Post-Bulletin found that the superintendent of Madelia schools was hired as a part-time staff member for Houston schools during the same time period that Ambient Learning was ironing out that contract with Madelia schools.
Madelia is about 100 miles west of Rochester.
The two administrators associated with Ambient have either left or are soon to leave their jobs with the Houston district. The school board eliminated the position of Steve Kerska, formerly Houston public schools' director of secondary options, on April 20. Weeks earlier on March 23, Superintendent Kim Ross announced he would be leaving the district when his contract expires June 30. The two administrators have been credited with developing the district's well-known online school programs.
Rochester resident Brian Grenell works as the part-time superintendent for Madelia schools and also operates Administrative Services of Minnesota, which provides consulting services. The group is not listed in the phone book, and the registered office address matches the location of Grenell's home.
When Grenell was hired, the Houston board minutes said he was a "former superintendent."
On Nov. 30, Grenell started work with the Houston school district. On the same day, members of the Madelia school board visited the southeastern Minnesota district to review the school's online academies — Minnesota Center for Online Learning and Minnesota Virtual Academy. They were informed about the school by Kerska and Ross, who were representing Ambient Learning.
The two Houston employees touted the school as an example of their expertise with Ambient, but the school board was not made aware of the tour or the company, school board member Mimi Carlson said.
"There was never a request made of the board to approve anything involved with Ambient Learning," Carlson said.
Ross' contract contains a stipulation that he cannot engage in any paid outside employment without prior school board approval. However, the contract also allows him to serve as a consultant if it does not impede his duties as superintendent.
On Dec. 21, the Madelia school board voted to explore online learning opportunities and on Feb. 22, awarded an $8,000 contract to Kerska and Ross, who spoke at the board meeting that night.
Ross said in an e-mail to the Post-Bulletin on Tuesday that he had already stepped away as CEO of Ambient in January, because it had become a "political distraction."
As talks escalated between Madelia schools and Ambient Learning, Madelia Superintendent Grenell continued to receive payment from the Houston school district. Administrative Services of Minnesota was paid a total of $13,000 for consulting assistance, according to records obtained from Houston public schools.
Grenell worked with Houston schools until March 26, which was three days after Ross announced his upcoming departure.
Kerska, no longer an employee of Houston schools, is still Ambient Learning's president. Reached by e-mail, he said he was attending an education conference in Pennsylvania this week.
With Ross departing the district, Houston school board members held a meeting Tuesday night to discuss interim superintendent options.
The board has offered the interim position, pending finalization of a contract, to Eric Bartleson, said Ron Evenson, a Houston school board member.
Bartleson has formerly served as the superintendent of Winona and Plainview public school districts.
The board is expected to take action on that recommendation on Thursday.
The board is also scheduled to hold a closed session on Thursday for preliminary consideration of allegations related to an employee.
According to Minnesota statute, the board can close the meeting while considering allegations or charges against an employee. But once the board decides that discipline of any nature may be warranted, further meetings or hearings related to those charges must be open.
As far as Ross' future, Carlson said she wasn't surprised that he would eventually move on but said she was somewhat surprised at the timing of the move.
She credited Ross for his vision in leading the school district's online programs.
"He's done great for our school and I wish him well whatever he does in the future," Carlson said.
Looking ahead, Ross said in Tuesday's e-mail to the P-B that he plans to concentrate on his family.
"In the past, my work has taken much time away from my family and I plan for that not to be the cast in the future. Also, I plan to be involved in some way or another in the world of online learning," Ross said.