SALT LAKE CITY — Heather Bennett, whose fight against the closure of her neighborhood school propelled her to more than a decade of service on the Salt Lake City Board of Education, died unexpectedly Monday due to a vascular issue.
Bennett, 61, had been undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer.
She was elected to the Salt Lake board in 2004 and served in several leadership capacities, including president.
In announcing Bennett's passing, Salt Lake City Superintendent Lexi Cunningham said the community had not only lost "a fierce advocate for our students but also a kind, compassionate and exemplary public servant. I could expound on Heather’s many and notable achievements, but what she will most be remembered for is her commitment to all students in the Salt Lake City School District."
In recent months, when Bennett was not feeling well enough to attend board meetings in person, she participated by telephone.
When the board recently heard a recommendation to close M. Lynn Bennion Elementary School, she urged the board to take more time to more fully study the implications of the school closure and other recommendations of the district's building utilization committee.
In 2017, during Bennett's term as board president, the school board passed a resolution that offered reassurance the district "cannot and does not" does not ask students to disclose immigration status.
At the time, Bennett said the Safe Schools Resolution spelled out that Salt Lake City schools and other district facilities are "safe and welcoming places" for all students and their families.
"It makes it clear we're not going to give unfettered access to (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) or any agency acting on behalf of ICE or acting to enforce immigration law to our schools and our students. We take the protections of (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) very seriously," Bennett said.
Bennett's path to 14 years of service on the Salt Lake board started at her neighborhood school, where she volunteered and was a leader in the fight against its eventual closure.
“Heather made an enormous impact in the lives of students in the Salt Lake City School District. From her early work as a volunteer and leader at Lowell Elementary School more than 25 years ago, to her recent initiatives promoting literacy and emotional wellness as president of the board last year, she demonstrated her concern for all students and their academic progress and growth," said board member Katherine Kennedy.
"She will be dearly missed by all of us," Kennedy said.
Board member Kristi Swett described Bennett as an essential mentor.
"I couldn’t have asked for a better … example of what it means to be a public servant," Swett said.
Bennett "was always focused on doing what was best for our kids. She had an ability to bring people together, even when they had differing opinions," she said.
"I learned so much from Heather, her grace and her ability to look past what was on the outside and really dig for what was on the inside. I will miss her terribly.”
Elected board president in 2014, Bennett managed the national search for a new superintendent, which culminated in unanimous selection of Cunningham.
Bennett represented District 5 on the school board. She served as its vice president for several years and sat on its human sexuality and shared governance committees. She also served on the Utah High School Activities Association board of trustees.3 comments on this story
A Utah native, Bennett studied English literature at the University of Utah and worked in publishing in New York, California and Utah. She operated an editorial and print-production consulting business, Hither & Yon Publishing Services, from her home, according to her campaign website.
She is survived by her husband, Kevin Hanson, chairman of the University of Utah's Film and Media Arts Department. The couple has three children, all graduates of Salt Lake City public schools. All were at her side when she died Monday, a statement from the school district said.
Services have not been announced. The school board was expected to conduct its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday night.