School districts are more than academic institutions; they are also economic engines in their communities.

Typically among the largest employers in town — which also award millions of dollars worth of business contracts — school systems have the responsibility to manage their business equitably.

Providing opportunities to companies owned by women and by people of color is especially important for impoverished communities. And diversifying those contracts can trickle down and eventually impact the classroom, too.

The topic was explored Thursday evening in Memphis during a panel discussion hosted by Chalkbeat, High Ground News, and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.

School leaders in Memphis, home to Tennessee’s largest district, are attempting to mitigate disparities in business contracts highlighted by a recent study of Shelby County Schools. In the last five years, 15 percent of its contract dollars went to businesses owned by minorities and women, even though they make up a third of the local available market. But the most egregious finding was related to school construction: Although black-owned businesses comprise more than a third of the local construction industry, they were awarded less than 1 percent of those contracts.

Here are three suggestions of how school districts can promote economic equity in their cities:

🔗Start by finding out how much your school district is spending with businesses owned by women and people of color.

To know where you’re going, you have to know where you are, said Beth Phalen, chief of business operations for Shelby County Schools. A disparity study can not only help to create a baseline from which to develop goals, it is the first legal step in creating business outreach programs targeted to women and minority owners.

Many in the public sector “don’t track the data so they don’t know where to start,” Phalen said. “I’m just happy we have a baseline so we know where to start and make goals.”

🔗Meet with local business leaders regularly.

Such meetings can be great networking opportunities for businesses, and school leaders can find out what barriers are keeping some companies from bidding on projects — for instance, expensive bonding requirements that could be covered by self-insured government agencies.

“When you’re doing government work, you’re all filling out the same boxes,” said Jonathan Logan, president of Castle Black Construction. “What keeps us from going out and seeking out those contracts is capital. … Everything ties back to capital.”

Lawmakers can play a significant role in taking down those barriers. “The government officials can literally change anything they want, but the bonding rules are meant to keep African-American businesses out,” said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium.

🔗Once goals are in place, track the progress — and hold leaders accountable.

Since disparities are broken down by race and gender, why not set specific goals for each subgroup instead of lumping them together?

Logan suggested more detailed analysis as “the only way we can track where money is spent.”

And don’t forget charter schools. The publicly funded but privately managed schools are not as tightly regulated as traditional public schools, but their authorizers can monitor and enforce equitable spending too — just as they do with academic plans.

“I would love for that to be a question people have to explain if they intend to open a charter in Memphis and not work with minority contractors,” said Mike Brown, chief of schools for Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter network that’s authorized by the Memphis district.