Kent ISD — After more than 40 years in education, five as superintendent of Kent ISD, Ron Caniff announced his retirement at the July Kent ISD Board of Education meeting. In his announcement, Caniff said he would stay through the end of December to help Kent ISD get through the start of the 2020-2021 school year.
“I was always told that you will know when it is time,” Caniff said about retiring. “I had the realization that it’s time.”
Caniff admits that he might have gone a few more years, but like for many others, COVID-19 nudged the timing up.
“I am not really a Zoom person,” he said with a little laugh. “I would rather meet in person, so this realm of Zoom meetings is not really for me.
“It is time for me to focus on my wife and family, who gave up a lot for me to pursue my career.”
Wanting to Make an Impact
“All I ever wanted to be was a teacher,” Caniff said, “to be specific, a high school social studies teacher.”
As he started his career at Forest Hills Central High School, Caniff’s goal was to make a difference in the lives of his students and hopefully have an impact on those he taught.
“I never aspired to be a superintendent,” Caniff said. “It was never in the career plan, but then one day, some people encouraged me to enter high school administration so I became a high school assistant principal and then it seemed logical to be a high school principal.”
While serving as the principal at Forest Hills Central High School, mentors encouraged Caniff to think about central administration. He became the assistant superintendent of Northview Public Schools and eventually, superintendent of Lapeer Public Schools, which is where former Grandville Board of Education member Karen Cheydleur met him.
He Had School-age Children and Just ‘Got It’
It was 2003 and Cheydleur, who had been on the Parent-Teacher Club at Central Elementary, was asked to be part of a search committee to find the next Grandville superintendent.
“I remember going to Lapeer and talking to the staff there and everything was all good,” Cheydleur said. “You would ask, ‘What is his weakness?’ And they had nothing. They felt he was forthright and honest.”
Cheydleur came to respect Caniff for his honesty and education as she served on the Grandville Board of Education from 2004 – 2018.
“He brought stability to the district,” Cheydleur said. “He just jumped right in and gave 100 percent. He was willing to talk to anybody and understood what parents were facing as he had school-age children.”
During his 12-year tenure at Grandville Public Schools, Caniff worked hard to get a bond issue passed so that all the schools within the district could be renovated and receive major upgrades, Cheydleur said.
His work in Grandville caught the attention of another board, the Kent ISD School Board, which selected him to become the organization’s next superintendent in 2015.
Kent ISD Comes Knocking
It was the policy at the time for Kent ISD to search for its next superintendent from the pool of current district superintendents, according to School Board President Andrea Haidle. Because of Kent ISD’s growth in the past eight years, much of which occurred during Caniff’s tenure, the board has launched a national search for the next Kent ISD superintendent. The board asked former Assistant Superintendent Ron Koehler to serve as interim superintendent starting Jan. 1.
“We knew he had thought about retiring,” Haidle said of Caniff. “It was the timing that was a surprise.” Although Haidle added she understood as she, too, is not a “zoom meeting” person.
Caniff oversaw much of the organization’s growth, which included the transfer of Center Special Education Programs from Grand Rapids Public Schools to Kent ISD, which Haidle noted doubled the number of Kent ISD staff. The Great Start Readiness Program, LaunchU and Adult Education programs were other additions, along with expansion of the hybrid MySchool@Kent.
“And while he will never admit it, he did his lion’s share of helping to get the countywide enhancement millage passed, which all of our districts so needed,” Haidle said. Approved by voters in 2017, the millage raises about $20 million annually for Kent ISD’s 20 districts, helping shore up district budgets for classroom and other needs.
Haidle said she also appreciated Caniff’s honesty in discussing issues facing education. “I trusted him and he trusted me,” Haidle said. “We don’t always agree on everything and he knows I am going to tell him what I think, but at the end, we had a really good relationship.”
Having served as superintendent for 20 years, Caniff said his greatest joy has been the people he has had a chance to work with. It was through building relationships and working together that enabled him to help the districts and Kent ISD achieve the goal of making education better for all.
Caniff said he hopes when people look back at his legacy they will see that he “answered the bell. I tried to be there and did my best every day.”