School facilities leaders are always trying to save their districts time and money, but the arduous bid and request for proposal processes can make that all but impossible. In fact, some bid and RFP processes can take up to 18 months to complete, meaning that projects often don’t come to fruition for years, leaving room for fluctuations in the market that can lead to higher costs. 

One option districts are now seeking out in an effort to save precious time and money is cooperative purchasing. Through this endeavor, districts essentially outsource the bid process by utilizing a database of competitively sourced contracts in a wide variety of industries, selecting the one that best fits their needs. 

“You can’t fight compliance,” Dave Duhn, supplier supervisor with Sourcewell said during a presentation at the K-12 Facilities Forum. “You have to embrace that. You can’t make that go away, but using cooperative purchasing, you can satisfy that bid process.” 

 

Finding the Need 

With limited time and resources, many school district facilities leaders loathe the RFP process. From soliciting bids to interviews and negotiations to finally waiting for the approval of the school board, the process can take months. 

“The difference between you and a corporation is that you have to get approval first; they can just pull the trigger,” Duhn said. “Don’t make this harder than it is. We’re just one choice, but it’s super, super important.” 

“We do the process like you do; you’re just outsourcing it.”

 

With hundreds of contracts already bid, Sourcewell – a Minnesota-based government agency that works with government, education, and nonprofit agencies across the country – provides facilities leaders with a wide array of products and services and the companies that offer them. In many cases, Duhn said, schools can choose their local vendors but skip the hassle of the long bid process. 

“You can get the people you want who can actually perform the jobs,” he said. “We do the process like you do; you’re just outsourcing it.”

The COVID pandemic accelerated the need for many districts to acquire services, including hiring companies to manage and change air filters or implement other infection mitigation efforts. 

The Need for Speed 

That’s exactly what John Bailey, director of school plants for Chesapeake Public Schools, found when he was tasked with quickly procuring materials and services. 

“We all hate to go through the bid and RFP process,” he said. “I was looking at ways to move things forward quickly, when my Superintendent came to me and said, ‘I need this now. Whatever it takes, I want you to get it and get it quickly.’” 

Bailey turned to the suppliers he’d built relationships with over the years and contacted Johnson Controls. 

“I told them, ‘I need this now, can you help me?’” he recalled. “She made some calls and we found that they have sourcing from Sourcewell. Before you know it, we could actually do this.” 

“It takes us forever to do an RFP. We put it out, get vendors, shortlist the vendors, interview vendors, negotiate pricing, then it goes to the school board,” Bailey said. “But we didn’t have three months to do this.” 

“This was a seamless process."

 

Once the school district and Johnson Controls teamed up with Sourcewell, things moved along much more quickly than they had ever done in the past. 

“My procurement officer called me and said we could use Sourcewell to get the quote and it would be on the school board agenda in three weeks,” he said. “This was a seamless process. I’m talking to them now about other opportunities.” 

Meeting the Needs 

Bailey isn’t the only school district leader utilizing Sourcewell for a variety of needs. Duhn said that the service cooperative has had 40,000 agencies purchase more than $5 billion in goods and services. The agency has also been able to respond to many districts’ specific needs. 

“We didn’t always have buses until a school came to us and asked for them,” Duhn said. “We looked, saw there was an unmet need, and that we could bring value to schools.” 

The agency always looks for other ways to help, including offering leasing options. For instance, a district that needed laptops to accommodate remote learning was able to lease the technology over a number of years to spread the cost and meet budgetary needs, Duhn said. 

Districts looking to explore cooperative purchasing can do so easily by registering with Sourcewell and then looking at contracts, said Liz Sourdiff, manager of client development at Sourcewell. 

Steve Manning

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Steve Manning is a journalist based in Idaho. When he's not writing, he can usually be found at the theater or taking his dog on a hike. If he could only go to one restaurant for the rest of his life, it would be Al's Place in San Francisco.

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