As a middle and high school English teacher in a large public school district, I witnessed firsthand that there are many other adults in schools and districts whose beliefs — positive or negative — have an enormous influence on students’ access to resources and educational opportunities — and that these decisions can have racialized implications.

Who Are School-level Business Administrators and What Do They Do?

Among the many players in the school resource pipeline, school-level business administrators have unrecognized decision-making power when it comes to finally getting resources in students’ hands. School-level business administrators, or SBAs, are based in K-12 schools whose specific job is to oversee that school’s funds and operations. Sometimes called bookkeepers, SBAs can go by many different names and are not found in every school district — especially those with tighter budgets — but every school has a leader who takes on these responsibilities.

Like Teachers, Beliefs About Race Inform Resource Management Practices, Too

Recently, I conducted a case study and found that SBAs have a wide range of world views that inform how they make resource allocation decisions — and whether those decisions center racial equity. A teacher’s disposition, or their pattern of belief-driven actions, can alter a student’s educational experience, motivation, and even their achievement. Here, I describe the three types of dispositions that an SBA may have:

  1. Race-Neutral Dispositions: Some SBAs take a color-blind approach to resource management and avoid or deny the existence and impacts of systemic racism. For example, to be “fair” to all students, these SBAs often resisted or discouraged the use of fee waivers for activities such as field trips, even if they were available. Similarly, they encouraged traditional types of family involvement in school operations, without accounting for diverse cultural backgrounds or jobs with inflexible schedules. When viewing resources through a race-neutral lens, SBAs make resource-management decisions that maintain the status quo and perpetuate racially disparate access to resources.
  2. Human-Centered Dispositions: Some SBAs prioritize their relationships with school leadership, teachers, staff, and students in a way that centers the humanity of all those they interact with in their management practices. In the district I studied, a common practice has been to allocate an equal annual budget to each discipline-specific department. Recognizing that needs may fluctuate, some SBAs take a people first approach and implement a needs-based budgeting strategy to enable more equitable distributions. Caring for their school community, these SBAs conscientiously upkeep the facility and advocate for supportive spaces within the school. While a human-centered disposition does not explicitly forefront the effects of systemic racism, their practices do actively seek to mitigate inequities at large.
  3. Racially Equitable Dispositions: This disposition explicitly acknowledges and reckons with the effects of historic and current systemic racism in allocating school resources, such as purchasing racially diverse textbooks; eliminating course fees; planning for purchasing resources for English learners, and more. SBAs with this disposition consciously consider racialized access when managing the usage of the building, master calendar, cafeteria, communication methods, and free- and reduced-meals forms. With a racially equitable disposition, SBAs enact practices that ease and increase resource access for Black and Latino students.

Recommendations for Education Equity Advocates and Policymakers

In addition to the technical skills needed for SBA positions, state and district leaders should include a commitment to racial equity in their recruitment and retention of school-level business administrators and all financial and operations-related personnel. As part of an SBA’s professional development, school leaders should engage in important, ongoing reflections on how their ideologies influence their practices.

Policymakers should also seek the ground-level knowledge of SBAs and use their expertise to inform more macro-level finance and operations policies. By monitoring a school’s every incoming and outgoing dollar, SBAs would be particularly useful in developing a state’s capacity to meet and go beyond compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act’s requirement to report school-level spending data.

If resource allocation decisions are not made with the principles and priorities of equity in mind, then schools risk perpetuating existing racial disparities through their management of school funds and operations. These decisions can help schools and districts move students toward a more racially just school resource ecosystem — but leaders need to make the conscious effort to do so at every level of governance.

Kimberly Sterin, Ph.D. has worked as an educator, researcher, and policy analyst within public school districts, higher education, and industry. Her research examines access to educational resources across the K-12 school landscape with a focus on building leaders’ capacity and strengthening governance to rectify racial and social opportunity gaps. She is also a former P-12 research intern at Ed Trust.