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  • Writer's pictureChuck Kite

What’s the business of a school business manager?

In this month's article our senior consultant Chuck Kite reflects on his experience of taking on the role of the school business manager as someone moving to this position from another role within the school and without a financial background. In it he offers some insights for those of you who may be interested in a similar move.

Though it may appear that way from the outside, the Business Office is not all about accounting and budgets. My hat is off to the business managers who are CPA’s or have that skill set to support their work. However, those of us who have had that international school role acknowledge there's much more to our work than that. Having a large amount of responsibility for the success of school, but not having the very public leadership position of a school head or principal, can be a fulfilling career.

Looking back my career in education, I wondered about the series of events that led me to a business mangers role. It certainly couldn't be described as a straight line! Could that set of steps, coincidences, serendipity (and maybe even kismet) be something that would encourage other school administrators to consider this critical support role in international schools? Done well it serves students and teachers in ways that go beyond what a school head or principal can manage on their own.

One thing that jumps out at me from my previous schools and job roles is the variety. My initial career choice was as an elementary school classroom teacher in public schools. Then moving overseas, first to Japan and then in Africa, broadened the scope of what teaching entailed.

In each early move, usually between small and medium enrollment locations, the support staff was limited and the number of roles to manage pretty large. There was no administrative support department to call when a book order was late for the start of the school year, the classroom sink faucet dripped or the copy machine was jammed or out of toner and paper.

What started off as being a teacher, grew into an administrative role that began with doing some building maintenance, then later responsibility for enrollment, alumni relations, fund raising, IB coordination, ESOL screening, budgeting, purchasing, teacher in-service and school conference organization, construction oversight, accreditation coordination, etc. The phase, “everything but the kitchen sink” comes to mind.

One aspect of that career became clear when reviewing it all. I was engrossed in the role of helping others do the work of education by serving students as best we could. If that meant the heaters had to function, or the teacher conference had to have compelling presenters, the school needed someone to pull the pieces together. That also suited my style and my need for a wide variety of challenges.

Although I didn't know it at the time, I was building up an eclectic resume. I had gained experience at almost every level and type of school organization. All of those experiences, most successful but some not, gave me insight on how best to accomplish the business manager's role. It is also safe to say that knowing what I didn't know and finding the appropriate expertise was also key.

For example, knowing the local medical system relates to finding appropriate health insurance or hiring school health office personnel. Knowing how local contractors work and the reliability of bids can make or break a well-crafted budget. If the business manager's role includes purchasing, knowing the codes for import duties is best left to a freight consolidator, but finding the optimum import consolidator versus local purchase options makes Sudoku puzzles look like child's play.

One part of the role of a business manager in an international school setting is an awareness of the culture outside of the school. Being in one location/culture for many years of my career helped bring that into focus. International schools are an island unto themselves in some ways usually bringing a different view of teaching and curriculum compared to national schools. However, that outlook isn't always appropriate in every situation. The business manager needs to understand the local business environment, the culture of the local staff and something of the language as well. Japan, where I've worked for most of my career, has a strong business culture and ignoring that reality won't serve the school well.

Where that became most apparent was during construction projects where a local architect's approach to school buildings and infrastructure were at odds with trends in other developed countries. The building plan met code but needed more energy efficiency. Getting sufficient insulation in the ceiling of the new gym took some time to achieve but wasn't an area where following local building practice was appropriate.

Another example, regular and formal evaluations aren't all that common for local staff in Japan, but since the local staff are often in place much longer than the expatriate staff, nurturing a positive relationship between expat and local staff brings a whole other type of skill set to the business managers role.

So, if you're an individual who craves variety beyond the usual school leadership roles, deals easily with data and planning, then perhaps the job of school business manager is something you could pursue.

Whether the school business manager begins their career with a move from a commercial background into education or from within education into the business, the transition is not easy. In order to be successful, Rookie school business managers are faced with a steep learning curve, in a fast-paced role with many stakeholders to manage. At Sage Consultancy, we offer one to one support for business managers to help them navigate transitions and difficult phases during their career.

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