Kent ISD chief looks ahead after high-profile firing

Ron Caniff, Superintendent of Kent ISD

Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff says he will focus on moving the countywide district forward after settling the high-profile dismissal of William Smith, Kent ISD Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services.

Smith was dismissed from the job he has held since 2011 as part of a negotiated settlement with the Kent ISD board. The settlement calls for Smith to get the remaining 19 months of his two-year employment contract.  In return, Smith agreed to abandon potential lawsuits and claims against the district and its staff for wrongful termination or other alleged grievances.

Smith had been on paid leave since June 19 as an independent investigation began with formal complaints that Smith had created a hostile work environment for ISD staff. The investigation also covered Smith’s relationship with a software vendor that created a software product created for and supported by Kent ISD since 2014.

While Smith will not be allowed to work on the Kent ISD campus, the settlement says he may be called on “to complete reports, special projects and other assignments” under the direction of Caniff. 

“We entered into the settlement and release agreement, in part, to avoid not only significant legal costs, but also the strain that prolonged court proceedings would have brought to numerous employees through depositions, testimony and other legal activity,” Caniff said in an open letter to Kent ISD staff on Saturday, Oct. 5. 

“This would have undoubtedly resulted in the loss of time and energy that would otherwise be better spent focusing on the needs of students,” Caniff said. The settlement was announced on Oct. 4.

“As we close this chapter and turn the page to the next, we’ve got some healing that needs to occur.  We also will begin focusing on how our organizational chart may change as we look to structure our work based on our current and future needs.”

In an interview with School News Network, Caniff said he does not envision changes in personnel policies as a result of the complaints from staff about Smith’s behavior. “We have policies in place. There were policies before all of this, they’re in place now and they’ll be in place in the future,” Caniff said. 

“I’m very grateful to staff that made these concerns known to us in a formal way. That does take courage and I appreciate their willingness to do that,” Caniff said. “And, that resulted in action. Our policies were followed.”

Smith’s position was created in 2011 by merging the duties of two assistant superintendents who were retiring, Caniff said. The positions were merged into one position to create more collaboration within the organization, Caniff said.

“It was all well intentioned,” said Caniff. “In many ways, we’ve come a long way in that regard. That objective may have been achieved. The other side of it is that one office had a tremendous load of responsibility. Essentially two-third to three-quarters of our organization flowed through that office.

“When these situations present themselves, they’re an opportunity. I’ve said before, ‘Don’t waste a good crisis.’  So we look at this and say, ‘Does our structure continue to work the way we want it to work?’ That will take some dialogue with our team.” 

Caniff said he does not have a timetable for filling Smith’s position or making a decision on organizational changes. “We’ll take our time to get it right.”

Kent ISD is an educational service agency, and the fourth largest in the state. The 1100 staff members serve the schools in Kent County by providing specialized education programs and services that range from early childhood programs through adult education, dozens of services for schools and educators, center-based special education programs and unique high school options including Kent Career Tech Center, Kent Transition Center, Kent Innovation High and MySchool@Kent.

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James Harger
James Harger reported on West Michigan's economy, courts and politics for The Grand Rapids Press and Mlive.com for more than 37 years. He also is employed as Servanthood Leader at Immanuel Lutheran Church in downtown Grand Rapids. A graduate of Central Michigan University, he also has worked for publications in Holland, Mount Pleasant and Lansing. He is married to Lisa and has one daughter, who lives in Ann Arbor. Read James' full bio or email James.

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