Homegrown leadership

SD 57 Board Chair Tim Bennett is a product of the district he now represents

October 25, 2019

For Tim Bennett, providing students with the best possible educational experience is a mission that stretches back to his own high school years.

Bennett, Chair of the School District No. 57 Board of Education, was a 14-year-old at Prince George’s Lakewood Junior Secondary School when he decided to join the District Student Advisory Council, a body that gives students a voice at the Board level. His involvement with DSAC was eye-opening and allowed him to develop some already-impressive leadership skills. As it turned out, being on the inside of the education system also gave him a glimpse into his future.

“Having meetings and being able to see things even at that age at a district level was valuable,” Bennett said. “It was really great to see what our District Student Advisory Council is all about.

“I had some pretty incredible mentors growing up,” Bennett added, in explanation of why he felt the need to try to make a difference with DSAC. “I think that’s probably why I’m so driven by the work I do in my day life with Big Brothers Big Sisters (he’s Executive Director of the Prince George chapter). But I was also very heavily involved with Boy Scouts at the time and taking on some leadership responsibilities with scouting. I ended up serving as the district area and then regional area youth commissioner – so the youth representative at the local and then regional and then provincial level. Getting to see that system work at a young age and seeing the role that a good governance body can play really kind of got me focused on that work.”

Before he got to Lakewood, Bennett attended Spruceland Elementary School. After three enjoyable years at Lakewood (Grades 8-10) he moved on to D.P. Todd Secondary for his Grade 11 and 12 years. All of his friends transitioned to Prince George Secondary School but Bennett chose D.P. Todd because of its strong band program, which was, and remains, under the leadership of music teacher Susan Klein.

“At that point, PGSS didn’t even have a band program,” Bennett said. “I was one of like two students who came over to D.P. Todd for Grade 11. The first couple months, when you’re transferring schools and you know nobody – and this was pre-Facebook so you didn’t even have that much connection with kids at other schools – the first couple months took a lot of adjustment but coming (to D.P. Todd) and being part of the band, you started to develop those friendships and those relationships.

“I really loved my time at D.P. Todd. It was getting to be involved in the leadership and the work with the band, Grad committee, and really just kind of diving in.”

Bennett graduated from D.P. Todd in 2004 but remained tied to the school district as a volleyball coach at Lakewood until the school closed in June of 2010, the result of decreasing enrolment across the district and a necessary restructuring. The shuttering of Lakewood – which reopened in a French Immersion capacity as Ecole Lac des Bois Elementary in September 2010 – was a defining moment for Bennett because it prompted him to run for a school trustee position in the 2011 civic election.

“I worked with the committee that was working to save Lakewood and came and spoke at a public information night,” he said. “Honestly, from the outside, I wasn’t overly happy with how I perceived the process of the 2010 school closures and then the school board election rolled around and I was like, ‘If you want to create change, you have to be able to do it from the inside’ and I also recognized that if I was going to be critical I needed to be willing to step up and at least put my name out there. So I ran in 2011 for the first time and was elected. I was pretty ecstatic at that – that the community trusted and put their faith in this 25-year-old.”

From a slate that had more than 20 candidates, the young Bennett secured one of seven trustee positions. He became Board Chair in 2016 and, as a second-year member of the B.C. School Trustees Association, is a respected voice at the provincial level.

During his time on the School District No. 57 Board of Education, Bennett, now 33, has been a front-and-centre witness to substantial change. The school closures and shrinking budgets of his early years have given way to a period of growth, a trend that is expected to continue for at least another five years. Unofficial enrolment (elementary and secondary) for 2019-2020 is 13,082 and by 2024-25 it is expected to reach 13,763. Meanwhile, the annual budget for this school year is $172.7 million. Included in that number is surplus funding in the amount of almost $2.2 million. With the district being in a position of financial health, programs connected to student mental health and Indigenous education have become even bigger priorities.
“For the first part of my time as a trustee we were in a system where we were continually trying to cut, find savings,” Bennett said. “There was a lot of conversation around where and how we were going to fund things. Tough decisions – even around school closures – and tough decisions in early parts of our mandates, and increased funding from government, have us in a place now where we can invest money into things like mental health support, into better support for our Indigenous students (Indigenous graduation rates in the district have climbed from 48.8 per cent in 2013-14 to 65.8 per cent in 2017-18). We can have strategic conversations, and not necessarily about, ‘Are we going to have to cut this program or cancel this or that.’ Our conversations are a lot different now.

"And so much has changed in education in the last eight years,” Bennett continued. “We have a new curriculum, school boards are taking stances around ensuring that our schools are truly inclusive spaces when you look at things like SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) and the SOGI 123 resources (which help educators to create atmospheres of inclusivity). These were just fringe conversations back in 2011 and now 60 districts have taken a stance and said, ‘We want to ensure inclusive spaces for all students.’”

Looking ahead, Bennett is excited about the new Kelly Road Secondary School, currently under construction and on target for a September 2020 opening. The new facility – being funded by the provincial government ($43.3 million) and School District No. 57 ($1 million) – is being built to a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) equivalency and will accommodate up to 900 students.

The Board Chair is also looking forward to a possible renovation and expansion of D.P. Todd, a project that holds top priority on the district’s 2020-21 five-year capital plan submitted to the province. The new Kelly Road and a revamped D.P. Todd are seen as critical in addressing the challenges presented by the district’s growing student population.

“I definitely spent many hours in the (D.P. Todd) building,” Bennett said. “When I saw the draft plans, I was most excited about how many windows are going to be in the new build. Joking aside, how we teach our kids is changing and our buildings need to change to reflect that. I think the – hopefully – expansion of D.P. Todd is going to create yet another amazing learning space in our community.”

Ultimately, Bennett the adult has the same objective as Bennett the 14-year-old: that every decision is made with the best interest of the students in mind.

“It’s easy to lose that lens when you are sometimes sitting in six-hour meetings talking about catchment areas or bargaining or those decisions that trustees are responsible for making,” he said. “You have to remember everything you do needs to better our classrooms. And honestly, school visits are probably my favourite part of the job because they get me back into buildings and get me remembering why we do what we do.”