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Superintendent’s online-learning business raises concerns

Houston Public Schools (Minn.) Superintendent Kim Ross will resign when his contract expires on June 30.
Houston, Minn., Public Schools Superintendent Kim Ross will leave the district when his contract expires June 30.

The superintendent of Minnesota’s Houston School District is leaving amid concerns about his involvement with a private online-learning consulting firm.

Houston Public Schools spokeswoman Kelley Stanage said Kim Ross has announced he’ll leave the district when his contract expires June 30. Ross, who is currently on paid administrative leave, was named a Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award winner by eSchool News earlier this year.

In March, school board members expressed concerns about Ross’s role in Ambient Learning, which he created with Steve Kerska, another district employee.

Some residents said they were concerned that Ross’s work with Ambient Learning, which counsels other school districts on how to create online schools, represented a conflict of interest. They feared that Ross’s work might help other local districts create virtual-school programs that would compete with Houston’s own online programs, which Ross also spearheaded.

In March, Ross told the board he had resigned from Ambient Learning and was no longer involved with the company.

“Throughout my career, I have been very blessed to be able to lead and participate in several exciting and dynamic programs,” Ross said in his departure announcement to district staff. “The success we have enjoyed at Houston is the result of the efforts of many, many individuals, both inside and outside of the school. I am proud to have been part of a school system that is recognized for its innovation and student success.”

Eric Bartleson is acting as the district’s interim superintendent. Bartleson has been the superintendent of Minnesota’s Lake Crystal-Wellcome, Winoa, and Plainview-Elgin-Milville districts. He has taught educational leadership at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Citing the Minnesota Data Practices Act, district representatives told local news outlets that they could not comment about the investigation into Ross’s involvement with Ambient Learning while superintendent. Ross himself did not return an eSchool News reporter’s messages.

Ross’s name does not appear on Ambient Learning’s web site, but Kerska is listed as the company’s president. The school board voted to eliminate Kerska’s position with the district in April.

School board meeting minutes from June 8 indicate that community members Andy Davis and Kevin Kelleher plan to file a complaint with the Minnesota Board of School Administrators after Davis noted that answers to questions regarding the legal situation were slow to come. Those same minutes said Bartleson, the district’s interim superintendent, offered to meet with Davis to discuss those questions.

Minnesota’s Houston School District is a small, rural district with about 450 K-12 students. Ross’s creation of the Minnesota Virtual Academy increased the district’s reach to nearly 2,500 students from around the state.

The Minnesota Virtual Academy enrolls more than 2,000 students, with one program serving students in grades K-8 and another program serving grades 9-12. Students who attend traditional Houston schools also can take online courses through the Minnesota Virtual Academy to supplement their classroom instruction with Advanced Placement courses and online classes.

In naming Ross as a Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award winner in February, eSchool News wrote the following:

“Using a non-traditional approach to solving a traditional problem (declining student enrollment), he has taken a small, rural district of about 450 K-12 students tucked away in the southeastern corner of Minnesota and transformed it into a vibrant, financially sound school system now serving nearly 2,500 pupils from around the state, thanks to his creation of the Minnesota Virtual Academy.”

Ross also is a founding member of the Minnesota Center of Online Learning and is a legislative committee member of the Minnesota Online Learning Alliance.

The district’s Houston High School was featured in U.S. News and World Report as one of “America’s Best High Schools.”

June 10 interviews with candidates to replace Ross as superintendent included Jean Broadwater, superintendent of Wisconsin’s Kewaunee School District; Anita Grace, superintendent of Goodman Armstrong Creek School District in Wisconsin; and David Paschke, director of curriculum, instruction, and technology at Fairmont School District in Minnesota.

Past school board minutes indicated that the district hopes to hire a new superintendent by July 1.

In its official statement, district officials and staff wished Ross “the best in his new pursuits, and [the district] is currently in the process of searching for a dynamic superintendent who will continue to lead the district in innovation and excellence.”


Houston School District

Ambient Learning

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