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Longtime leader in education leaves legacy as communicator

Outgoing superintendent championed the value of education

Kent ISD— During the Kent ISD Student Leadership Community’s year-end celebration, Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Koehler was doing what he does best: watching and listening in the background.

Koehler, who retires as superintendent ending a 28-year career with Kent ISD, is a communicator. And what a communicator does best, he said, is listen.

“Listening to your constituents, responding to your constituents and demonstrating that you are a responsive entity, I think is the most important thing you can do in government. And I also have the faith that when people have full information, they’ll make good choices,” Koehler said, adding that he believes that true, two-way communication is “really the lubricant that makes government work.” 

It was through listening that Koehler led several Kent ISD initiatives, such as the Student Leadership Community

Retiring Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Koehler, standing, at a recent Student Leadership Community event, watching and listening

“Throughout his career at Kent ISD, Ron Koehler has always been focused on the needs of students,” said Dan Behm, who as executive director of West Michigan Advocates and Forest Hills superintendent worked with Koehler. “He is an indefatigable advocate for listening directly to students — knowing that students possess wisdom and authenticity for how to best meet their needs.”

Behm said it was because of Koehler’s care for students that he was instrumental in leading the 2017 enhancement millage as a local response to Michigan’s underinvestment in K-12 education, and helped push for the non-partisan research that generated the School Finance Research Collaborative

“Ron Koehler leads by example,” said Assistant Superintendent Ron Gorman, who will succeed Koehler as superintendent. “He is an incredibly transformative and collaborative leader who gives his colleagues defined autonomy to execute his vision. 

“One attribute of his exceptional leadership is his approachability. Ron truly cares about all Kent ISD stakeholders and will make time in his busy schedule to meet with anyone with a question or concern. He takes all concerns seriously.”

Gorman said in the two years he has been with Kent ISD, he has learned a lot from Koehler and plans to stay connected and continue to tap into Koehler’s knowledge.

From Covering Education to Being an Educational Leader

Koehler had no interest in education as a career, but rather went into journalism. His first job was with the news agency United Press International, where he was working while earning a master’s degree in public affairs at the University of Illinois-Springfield. The position would eventually bring Koehler to Grand Rapids.

From UPI, he worked at WOOD-TV, then Grand Rapids Magazine/Business Journal, and for former Governor Jim Blanchard’s office.

Always championing students and student voice, Superintendent Ron Koehler, far right, is with WOOD-TV’s Maranda, center, as she celebrates with students her 2019 Education Advocacy Award

When Blanchard lost his bid for re-election in 1990, Koehler took a job at a small ad agency, which he eventually bought. The agency folded after its largest client consolidated advertising, and Koehler went back to public relations work.

“What I found with my public affairs background is that I could spend all my time on the Grand Rapids Area Transit Authority, as it was known at the time, or the Metro Council, or Grand Rapids Public Schools or any of my public service clients, but I could really care less if I helped anybody sell another office chair,” Koehler said.

Koehler saw that Kent ISD had an opening for a communications director in 1996.

“The superintendents decided that they needed communications assistance because they had this new world of schools of choice, (and) new world of charter schools. It created competition in the world of education and (they) felt they needed a communications director to help shape the messaging, and to help them ‘compete,’ if you will.”

Right Person, Right Skills, Right Time

When Koehler came on board at Kent ISD, the operational and political climate was challenging for districts, he said. One of the first issues he dealt with was the school voucher campaign in 2000 that would have allowed public education tax dollars to be used to pay tuition at private schools. The proposal was defeated.

Four years later, Koehler led Kent ISD’s successful effort to increase special education funding to help districts with the costs of mandated programming. Working with superintendents, he also created a grassroots parent and community organization that advocated for public education in Lansing.

‘Nothing’s more important than education, period. It’s the cornerstone. I also believe it’s sort of the cornerstone of our democracy, that the least among us can be in the same classroom as the wealthiest among us and learn from each other and together, and create a better community.’

— retiring Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Koehler

In 2010, Koehler was named assistant superintendent of organizational and community initiatives and legislative affairs, and his list of accomplishments continue to grow. There was the Talent Triangle that brought the ISDs of Kent, Muskegon and Ottawa counties together to advocate for public education; the Reading Now Network, where more than 100 school districts studied reading data and shared best practices; the project-based school Kent Innovation High; the hybrid learning academy MySchool@Kent and a National Career Readiness Certificate/Guaranteed Diploma collaboration with other ISDs and the business community. 

In 2019, Koehler retired from Kent ISD, but it was short-lived. In 2021, he was asked by its Board of Education to serve as interim superintendent. After a year, the board asked if he would serve as superintendent to give the group more time to search. 

Again, it was not an easy time for education as school districts dealt with the COVID pandemic and the political divisiveness that followed, but Koehler said he thinks his background in communication and crisis management skills served Kent ISD and local districts well during that  period. 

As superintendent, Koehler also:

The initiatives he is most proud of are School News Network, because it connects communities and schools; and the Kent School Services Network, which fills an increasing gap in support services by connecting students and families to community resources.

Superintendent Ron Koehler, left, chats with School News Network Managing Editor Erin Albanese at his retirement party

Fortunate to Do Something So Fulfilling

Koehler said he sees his work as complete, and it’s time to hand the baton to Gorman, who he believes will lead Kent ISD and school districts through the next chapter.

“I feel good about turning it over to an educational leader whose whole career in education was focusing on the economically disadvantaged, and the minority subgroups that soon will make up the majority of the students we serve and their needs,” Koehler said. “That is very important to me. … I think that’s the biggest area of leverage for us in terms of improving both the lives of the students we serve and our community, because we truly are community builders in the schools.”

Koehler said he believes that a top priority is preparing students to be future leaders by helping them understand the complexity of the world they are living in and will eventually lead. 

“Nothing’s more important than education, period. It’s the cornerstone, I also believe it’s sort of the cornerstone of our democracy, that the least among us can be in the same classroom as the wealthiest among us and learn from each other and together, and create a better community.”

Superintendent Ron Koehler, left, said he is excited to pass the baton to Assistant Superintendent Ron Gorman, who will assume the position on July 1

It is also where someone with a journalism background and skills could use them to help communicate the value of education. 

“I’ve really been fortunate to find this place, to find something that is so fulfilling, and in an area where my particular set of skills that nobody considers primary for the delivery of education, turned out to be extraordinarily helpful to the entire enterprise,” Koehler said. “I would have never thought that. It’s nothing that I ever aspired to.”

Then after a beat, he added, “It’s so much better than helping somebody sell another office chair.” 

Read more from Kent ISD: 
With unbridled enthusiasm, School News Network founder showed ‘our public schools work’
New initiative aims to connect students with careers & schools with employers

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio


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