Robert Sidford, Director of Technology and Innovation at Mt. Diablo Unified School District, says centralizing tech purchases ultimately benefits students.

Mar 25 2024
Management

Why More K–12 Schools are Modernizing Their IT Procurement Process

Strategic procurement processes can speed technology deployments, prevent waste and help districts meet their learning goals.

In Silicon Valley, tech execs brag about moving fast and breaking things. But in the neighboring Mt. Diablo Unified School District, IT officials need to be more careful and deliberate as they deploy new technologies.

“We’re supporting teachers and kids,” says Robert Sidford, director of technology and innovation for the 29,000-student district. “We don’t want to be out there making a bunch of mistakes. So, we need to know what works, what we can afford and what is sustainable.”

Modern IT procurement processes are key to supporting these aims. And while procurement is a sometimes-overlooked part of technology initiatives, especially in smaller districts that lack dedicated purchasing staff, much can be done to improve the process.

In “The Power of Procurement: How Effective District Procurement Operations Can Make a Difference for Students,” a September 2022 report from Chiefs for Change, the authors note that a thoughtful, systemic approach to procurement could “develop capacity and deliver more, higher-quality services to students.”

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Sidford also believes that effective purchasing strategies can help to streamline deployments, cut costs and even improve educational equity.

Until several years ago, the district had a policy of bidding out any purchase over $5,000, resulting in lengthy delays for even small projects, such as running new cabling. Since then, Mt. Diablo has centralized its procurement practices and partnered with CDW to access resources through cooperative purchasing programs such as Sourcewell. “CDW points us to vendors we can trust,” Sidford says. “We would not be able to make moves as quickly without this partnership.”

Over the past several years, Mt. Diablo has implemented a one-to-one Chromebook program, upgraded its data center infrastructure and deployed Promethean interactive digital displays to classrooms throughout the district. Sidford describes the Promethean rollout as a prime example of the district’s new procurement practices in action.

READ MORE: Strategies K-12 schools are using to address the looming federal funding cliff.

Before that initiative, school leaders throughout the district made their own decisions about what audiovisual equipment to purchase. “Principals change, and they have different priorities,” Sidford notes. “It’s almost impossible to support all of those technologies.”

Today, by contrast, every teacher in the district has access to the same technology. And, if something needs to be fixed or replaced, IT professionals can quickly get the job done without having to rummage through storage closets in search of outdated spare parts. “I see it as an equity initiative,” Sidford says. “Every student needs equal access, and the only way to ensure that is through centralized purchasing.”

Gregory Long
Sometimes, you get what you pay for. When all you look at is the bottom-line price, you can miss out on important services.”

Gregory Long Director of Purchasing, Seminole County Public Schools

Schools Go Beyond the Lowest Bids to the Find Best Tech Deals

Gregory Long, director of purchasing for Seminole County Public Schools in Central Florida, notes that there is more to procurement than simply finding the lowest price. Long favors requests for proposals over a hard bidding process because proposals allow vendors and IT partners to demonstrate the value of the services they offer.

“Sometimes, you get what you pay for,” Long says. “When all you look at is the bottom-line price, you can miss out on important services.”

Such services were vital to the success of a recent $4 million Dell laptop deployment. “We didn’t want the devices to sit in our warehouse,” says Ulysses Vazquez, district CTO. Thanks to white glove services that took care of unboxing and device setup, “they arrived at our school sites laser-etched and fully loaded with the software that we wanted. Our techs only had to deliver them to the classrooms.”

LEARN MORE: Before investing in your next batch of ed tech, design your classroom of the future.

Long and Vazquez say that thoughtful procurement practices can also prevent waste. If the district orders several hundred of a certain device but doesn’t need all of them at once, Long will ensure that the purchase agreement allows the district to receive its order in phases. Then, if the manufacturer updates its offerings in the interim, the district is guaranteed to receive the improved product at the same price.

“In some districts, you’ll see a warehouse full of digital displays that haven’t been staged,” says Vazquez. “And then you do your school visits, and you see classrooms without displays. There’s a disconnect there. That’s what happens when technology is purchased without a plan.”

Long notes that an open line of communication between the district’s IT and business departments — about factors such as supply chains, product lead times and staff capacity — is vital to procurement success. “It’s about understanding what each of us is trying to achieve and then learning from each other about what unknown factors might cause problems,” he says.

80%

The reduction in time needed to complete bids in one large district after digitizing the process

Source: Chiefs for Change, “The Power of Procurement: How Effective District Procurement Operations Can Make a Difference for Students,” September 2022

Streamlined Purchasing Drives Efficiency for One K–12 District

Last summer, while Salinas City Elementary School District was holding administrative meetings, a delivery truck showed up on the wrong day with one of more than 400 ViewSonic digital displays that the Northern California district had planned to install in teachers’ classrooms.

The district does not have a warehouse, and leaders didn’t want to refuse the delivery, so tech workers scrambled to meet the truck and install the displays.

Nikki Herring, assistant superintendent for business services at the district, says the lack of a central warehouse — not to mention a dedicated purchasing or procurement leader — can sometimes lead to hiccups like this. However, she notes, the situation also forces the district to be purposeful when rolling out new IT equipment. “To some extent, not having a warehouse is a benefit,” she says. “We aren’t able to collect clutter because we don’t have the space for it. We have to be very strategic when we refresh technology.”

Herring says the district maximizes the success of its IT rollouts by conducting thorough pilot projects, as well as taking delivery in phases to give technology staffers the time to tag, deploy and install new equipment. For the ViewSonic deployment, the district also contracted for additional professional development to help ensure adoption.

RELATED: Why tech-focused professional development is vital for K–12 teachers.

Salinas moved to a one-to-one Chromebook program for students during the COVID-19 pandemic and also replaced laptops for teachers. Although it lacks a procurement professional, the district relies on “piggybacking” agreements that allow it to purchase technology that other districts have already vetted. “The process of putting out a request for proposals can be very lengthy,” Herring notes. “If you’re short-staffed, selecting from preapproved tech is the most efficient way to make purchases.”

Herring also stresses the importance of communication to the IT procurement process. “Getting input and feedback from teachers is crucial,” she says. “We want to get new technology out there, but it doesn’t make any sense to deploy something that is not going to work for them.”

Photography by Cody Pickens
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