Waste in school spending is a top concern for K-12 business officials, whether it is wasting already-reduced funds or wasting valuable time through cumbersome procurement processes. Most districts are committed to improving the procurement of assets for schools and districts; however, some aspects of procurement are outside a district’s control.
Advocates are working to improve external factors, like federal, state, and local regulations around school business. Internally, K-12 stakeholders at multiple levels can have a voice during appropriate purchasing stage, the right products, services, and systems can be implemented. K-12 procurement should reach the level of convenience, speed and competition as exists in the private sector–or even in consumer buying.
At Noodle Markets, we have worked with hundreds of districts and schools to streamline their sourcing, combining procurement tools with a searchable vendor database of local and national vendors. When we are onboarding clients, the first thing we ask is “How do you typically go about finding the best products and services for your students?” A few mention using co-ops or needing to go through pre-negotiated contracts, but most answer “Google.”
Many educators are starting their searches in a way that is already flawed. Search results usually prioritize older companies, because those companies are more likely to have invested in Search Engine Optimization, or can afford expensive ad placements. It is difficult for innovative companies to break through–especially in the curriculum and school software sectors.
The Key: Consult with colleagues, both at your school site and beyond. Look for product ratings and reviews and peer-reviewed efficacy studies. Administrators should solicit “wish lists” and “need lists” from their staff early on to surface needs–and even preferred pricing when buying in bulk. Having more people involved in the process earlier is also a compliance safeguard. Showing due diligence in the discovery phase is key.
It is obvious that properly evaluating vendors in a sourcing process requires teamwork. Whether it is formal solicitation with competitive sealed bidding or simplified procedures for small team, the right folks need to be at the table.
Too often, the end-users of a product or service are left out of the equation. That means textbooks are left in the back of classrooms, excess supplies are left in cabinets, and districts pay for tech maintenance contracts for hardware that isn’t even in use.
The Key: Before a purchase, find opportunities to leverage collaborators in the evaluation process, even if you do not have to go through formal evaluation. Get to know staff at your district and school so it is easy to reach out.
Administrators can not just “set it and forget it,” post-purchase. It is essential to gather data about efficacy, quality, and engagement, whether it is for curricular products or facilities. For instance, there is no need to keep investing in the same math app if it isn’t improving test scores, or teachers are lagging in training to use the app. At the other end, construction or furniture purchases usually come with guarantees of work quality–if something is defective, it needs to be addressed within the appropriate window.
The Key: Near the end of Q3, best practice for business officials should be to gather lists of all acquisitions and conduct an internal audit of efficacy. Reach out to the end-users to discover if the vendor is worth contracting with again Teachers, librarians, and office staff–for their part–should also feel empowered to be vocal about what works and what does not.
Sharing Your Experiences
The K-12 community extends beyond a classroom, school site, district, county, or state. Educators nationwide encounter the same issues when it comes to sourcing. They want to streamline practices, make people’s jobs easier, and improve the lives of staff and students. So, why is it that conversations around efficacy and acquisition often end up so local? Despite the use of national co-op contracts and consortiums, a large chunk of purchasing will always be discretionary.
The Key: The data around that purchasing needs to be spread far and wide. Publish internal efficacy studies and circulate it with colleagues across the country. Present at conferences about your practices. Review vendors and services in K-12 marketplaces.
There are areas that will be difficult to innovate. For instance, although bureaucratic loops are being examined, bidding processes are still subject to intense regulation. That likely will not change. Focus on your locus of control to improve sourcing in your environment.
When it comes to efficient sourcing in K-12, transparency and collaboration are essential. By streamlining processes and engaging stakeholders, school business officials decrease the likelihood of waste and increase the likelihood of securing the right and best products for their school communities.
This piece originally appeared in the December 2017 edition of Association of School Business Officials magazine, School Business Affairs.