Interview with Senator Tom Bennett

By Barbara Hobrock
Journal | March/April 2024 

Taking the oath as an elected or appointed school board member is no small pledge. The oath includes the phrase, “I shall serve as educa­tion’s key advocate on behalf of stu­dents and our community’s school to advance our vision.” Every school board member takes this oath upon being seated and is expected to fulfill this promise.

One legislator who under­stands this oath well is a former school board member, Senator Tom Bennett of Illinois’ 53rd District. While working and raising a fami­ly, Bennett served as a K-12 school board member and a member of the local preschool board. Prior to his service as a board member, Bennett had served as a high school and junior high science teacher. It was during that time that Bennett watched the existing school board work with and respect their super­intendent, and he wanted to get more involved.

As a legislator, Senator Ben­nett has served on task forces and commissions focused on early edu­cation, teacher assessments, envi­ronment, and energy. With a gamut of educational experience, Bennett is also an example of continuing education holding a bachelor’s in Education and Computer Science, master’s in Business Administra­tion, and doctorate in Business Administration.

We thank Senator Bennett for taking the time to answer some questions about the legislature, advocacy, and public education.

How important is it that local elected officials, such as school board members, become engaged in advocacy around legislation that impacts their districts?
Local school boards are the voice of the community for every­one. Many times, people don’t under­stand what or why things are happening in their districts and school board members help to bridge the gap by communicating with their legislators.

I annually engage with the school districts in my district to listen to school board members and other staff to learn what their needs are. This year, Dr. Tony Sanders, State Superintendent of Education, joined us and spoke to attendees. We partner with the State Board of Education and other stakeholders to ensure all views are heard.

What advice would you give to school board members about how to best advocate on behalf of their districts when they become aware of legislation that will positively or negatively impact their school districts?
Reach out! If you have not, develop relationships with your legis­lators and their staff and make a trip to Springfield during session. Ask questions of your legislators. While they may not know a lot about a bill, helping them understand the whole picture helps them develop their approach on the bill. They need to know all the angles so they can make educated decisions.

It is dire to develop relationships! This takes time, but it is worth it. Legislators should be spending more time listening and less time talking, and we need to know what our constituents are thinking. We need to listen to each other, and we need people to be involved and more aware of pending legislation.

Also check out and look at the proposed bills. Every time a bill is read in committee, we read the witness slips. This is an easy way to tell the legislators how the public feels about a bill and is advocacy in action. An example of this working is when a bill was filed, and we knew it needed more work, the advocates spoke against the bill with filing over 3,000 opposing witness slips. This caused us to hold the bill and not call it in committee. We went back to the drawing board and amended the bill according to stakeholder feedback. This is advocacy in action.

How would you engage a school board member that is hesitant to advocate?
I would ask them to think of why they are on the school board. I would make a point to speak to them on the side and build a relationship with them and encourage advocacy. There are so many ways to advocate.

They can attend the Joint Annual Conference IASB holds every year. This allows board mem­bers to see the bigger picture, make contacts, and build relationships. I would also encourage them to attend the Division Meetings that IASB coordinates. You can see what other board members are doing in their districts on a smaller scale and build those local relationships to possibly partner with each oth­er. Let’s not forget the Legislative Breakfasts. This is a great way to build relationships with other school board members and legisla­tors at the same time.

Any last thoughts you’d like to tell our school board members?
Serving on your local school board is a great opportunity to help make a difference for our families, neighbors, and students. Take advantage of it! We need you to be more involved and advocate.

Life gets faster and people are not as engaged anymore. People don’t think they make a difference when they actually do. Media can create issues, so reach out directly and build that relationship.

Barbara Hobrock is IASB Director of Governmental Relations