Starting a school can be thrilling, inspiring, fulfilling, and worthwhile–but I doubt it’s ever been easy. For charter school founders, in particular, there can be a steep learning curve when it comes to nailing down the operations of the school and the vast array of purchases needed to make the school run.
Noodle Markets is committed to being the most comprehensive destination for K-12 educators with buying needs–for anything from curriculum to transportation. We are proud to help educators nationwide with this important and challenging work. Along the way, we’ve discovered that some things are just plain hard to buy.
Sometimes there aren’t enough vendors to choose from, or there is extensive red tape tied to certain funding sources. You might even experience resistance from vendors who are looking for contract minimums above your budget. If you’re building a school or considering it, here are a few items you should research immediately:
1. Accounting/Bookkeeping Services:
For school founders, getting accounting services in order is an early must-do, especially when many educators are unfamiliar with the world of payroll, reimbursements, and accounts payables/receivables. Some attempt to use home grown solutions for these tasks, but financial systems can quickly get complicated.
There are a number of for-profit and nonprofit providers in this field, both regional and national. You may also decide to work with a consultancy to help provide you with best practices around establishing fiscal policies and putting procedure manuals in place.
Effective financial systems will help you manage your initial resources, as you secure municipal bond financing, grant money, and other capital. Many school founders or advisory board members end up fronting money to vendors as purchasing strategies are put in place. (This is especially common for large textbook purchases.) As such, procedures need to be in place to ensure that money is being allocated, spent according to state and federal guidelines, and reimbursed properly.
2. Staffing Resources for Key Roles:
Scott Torres, former Founding Director of Operations at Libertas College Preparatory Charter School, says filling key staffing roles early can save time and money down the line. “The earlier you can begin this process, the better.” He cites services like Education Pioneers as helpful, and notes that founders shouldn’t be afraid to cast a wide net. “Some of our best hires were people from outside of education. Look first and foremost for intelligent people with a strong work ethic and who really care about children.”
Torres also stresses that one of the first hires should be a student recruitment coordinator or parent liaison–ideally full-time. This person will help build enrollment, advertise your school to the community, and get early family champions. “It’s hard work to find the people who will show up to recruitment events and help build the school community culture early on,” says Torres.
3. Bussing Services:
One of the most challenging Requests for Information serviced in Noodle Markets to date was for a new charter school in Tennessee looking for school bussing services. They were seeking a vendor to provide a one-stop resource: the bus, planning of routes, insurance, management of driver contractors, and oversight of licensing requirements. We quickly discovered that there was only one company in their region who met their needs, and the company was unresponsive to a school of their size.
Solving this dilemma is no small task. If this happens to your school, we recommend connecting with nearby independent schools to explore a shared agreement. You can also do separate research for buying an actual bus, getting insurance, etc. Whichever path you follow, it has the potential to be a major time investment.
4. Personal Computers/Devices:
There are many important decisions to make when choosing personal devices, starting with selecting the right operating system for your students. Consider your authorizing district and their existing tech infrastructure when choosing what will work best for your school. Because of hardware/software compatibility issues, you might have growing pains if you do something different.
The costs of procuring personal computers and devices can really add up. So, how you purchase–e.g., via a reseller or directly from the manufacturer; and the terms you agree to, e.g. annual, perpetual or enterprise licensing–matters.
You should have both your federal and state tax IDs in place to secure education pricing, and you might encounter strict pricing policies with certain brands.
5. Broadband/Wi-Fi Tech:
Getting teachers and students online, especially when trying to use e-Rate funds, can be a huge headache.
Laws around funding are complicated. States and localities often have strict co-location regulations that govern internet security for schools that share a building with a traditional public school. At the same time, federal Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requirements are similarly stringent when it comes to filters and privacy. Founders are best served to seek vendors who can guarantee a CIPA-approved secure network. Of course, having experience with the authorizing district is another helpful attribute.
For these reasons, it can be difficult to get your authorizing district administrators to work with third-party vendors to put in a parallel network for a charter school. When the list of district-approved vendors is short, charters need extra time and resources to plan and execute their internet strategy.
6. Specialty Furniture:
Purchasing furniture can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the school founding experience, and there are a wealth of vendor options–both local and national. New schools should think carefully about specialty needs early on. For instance, perhaps space restrictions trigger a need for custom modular furniture, lab furniture must be built to meet specific state safety requirements, or school desks need to be designed to fit a specific device or offer charging ports.
Furniture research can also be a great opportunity to involve the community. Parents and students alike can offer useful feedback and feel inspired to participate more. Time needs to be built in to accomplish that, especially considering the realities that come with having a smaller budget and new credit. Vendors have to be strategic about managing their own cash flow to service small orders.
As you move forward in your process, it’s never too early (or late) to research and plan. Finding the right and best products and services for your students is no easy feat, but it makes all the difference. Consult with fellow educators, take stock of your assets, and seek out innovative solutions. I commend all founding school leaders for the passion and vision it takes to pursue this work. Best of luck on your journey and if Noodle Markets can be of help, please reach out.
This piece originally appeared on the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools blog.
Nicole Neal is the CEO and Co-Founder of Noodle Markets, K-12’s national market network. Educators use Noodle Markets to research, manage and evaluate vendors for over 33,000 K-12 products and services. Visit us at noodlemarkets.com/charters.