Procurement | Feature

Cooperative Purchasing: 3 Benefits of Strength in Numbers

Districts can save time and money on their ed tech purchases by joining one of these buying groups.

For K-12 ed tech leaders, budgets are chronically tight. One way to make the most of your available funds is to let the strength in numbers work for you by joining a buying network. Districts and educational consortia around the country are doing just that by using buying cooperatives like The Cooperative Purchasing Network (TCPN), the Association of Educational Purchasing Agencies (AEPA) and Keystone Purchasing Network to buy new hardware and software for their institutions. Here, they discuss how working with a middle man can actually save them money and time.

Competitive Pricing
Edmonds School District in Lynnwood, WA has certainly benefited from the services of buying cooperatives. According to Sandi Masterman, purchasing agent for the 32-school, 20,000-student district, it most recently worked with GovConnection to negotiate TCPN pricing on a contract (with the former serving as the intermediary). Through the arrangement, in 2012 the district purchased Lenovo desktops, tablets, monitors, keyboards and microphones.

"Pretty much everything that Lenovo sells — plus the remainder of GovConnection's catalog — can be purchased off a TCPN contract," said Masterman. "When we compared that to past contracts and the opportunity to buy direct, we found the buying group pretty advantageous in terms of the competitive price points."

To get involved, the district had to join TCPN, which offers members the opportunity to leverage any of the buying group's current bids.

Once the items are procured, districts like Edmonds work directly with the vendor (in this case, Lenovo) to manage delivery and technical/customer support. Masterman, who has used cooperative purchasing to acquire myriad products and materials — not just technology — said that gaining access to significant buying power is the biggest benefit that the district gains.

"It also helps whittle down the competitive bid process," said Masterman, "and gain the group's cumulative power, which far exceeds our individual buying power."

Chris Bailey, the manager of IT operations at Edmonds SD, said that when the district was buying Lenovo equipment directly from the manufacturer, it was paying more. "We're saving money by going through a third party, essentially," said Bailey. "In addition, the purchasing contracts allow us to move a little bit more quickly when we go through a formal bid process."

Expedited Purchasing
Bailey's second point is particularly significant because the time between defining specification and actually awarding a contract can range from three to six months. "There are certain protocols we need to go through as a school, and certainly as basically a state agency, that takes time," he said. "With a contract, however, we can submit whatever we need and reference the contract. We get the product within a week or two."

Like Masterman and Bailey, Elizabeth Walden, network manager for the Jackson County School District in Marianna, FL, said she likes using purchasing cooperatives to acquire technology because it allows her to expedite the process.

"We don't have to go out for bid when a product is already on the buying consortium's contract," said Walden, who most recently worked with the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium (PAEC) in Chipley, FL to purchase about 250 Acer laptops. (PAEC works with the AEPA to secure lower prices for its members.) Currently in the process of getting that purchase approved by the school board, Walden said working with the buying group is as simple as "making the vendor aware that we wanted to use the public purchasing program."

"The vendor then works with the co-op as far as making sure that pricing falls under its program," said Walden, whose team also buys frequently from CDW-G, which is also on the co-op's purchasing program. The CDW-G process involves Walden visiting the vendor's Web site to shop for specific products. While there, she uses a drop-down menu to see her district's special pricing, which is typically "a few dollars less than our [direct] prices," said Walden.

Walden said that districts can save time by working directly with the buying groups instead of reaching out to the vendors first. "With the laptop purchase, we took the long way around and contacted the vendor first and then had to get it under the PAEC contract," she said. "In retrospect, it probably would have been better to contact the buying group first, let it know what we are trying to do and then let the group handle some of the work."

That challenge aside, Walden said everything has gone smoothly for the co-op purchase. "We're taking the laptop purchase to the board this week for approval," she said, adding that she is prepared to "answer numerous questions about why we didn't put this purchase out for bid and so forth."

Buying with Confidence
According to Lisa Schofield, PAEC's technology director, the group works with AEPA to secure solid pricing discounts for its members. The consortium also uses co-ops for its own technology acquisitions, including a recent purchase of cameras, switches, routers and cables that are being used to upgrade the organization's broadband and Internet components. She said one of the most attractive aspects of working with AEPA is the national buying power that it provides its members.

"Products sold through the cooperative purchasing plan are bid on at a national level," said Schofield, "So we're dealing with much a larger volume than just one school, district or even consortium can claim."

For the PAEC's wireless overhaul, Schofield said, the equipment was ordered earlier this year and is now being delivered and installed. Before making a purchasing decision, she said the district looked at options offered by five different vendors under the AEPA's contracts. She said that in most cases the district has a large selection of providers to choose from. In addition to the contract bids listed through AEPA, the consortium also maintains affiliation agreements with vendors specifically for the state of Florida.

Schofield said that leveraging buying co-ops is almost like having an additional purchasing agent on staff at PAED. "We're all wearing three, four or five different hats right now," she said. "It's nice to be able to get access to competitive pricing and to make sure we're spending state money in the most careful manner possible. Being able to shop around without having to worry about price is a definite plus for us."

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