A little small talk can go a long way. Just ask Keith Schaeper, educational technology director at Seton High School, and Jeff Fuell, network administrator at McAuley High School, both members of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Over lunch in July 2007, they discovered that they both were planning to implement one-to-one computing programs for their schools. And both had the same thought: Why not join forces to negotiate a lower price on computers?
They shared the idea with Jeff Gaier, the technology director at Archbishop Moeller High School, where Schaeper used to work. Gaier was looking to purchase 250 to 280 computers for his school's one-to-one computing initiative, so he, too, was interested. Jim Schmidt, Elder High School's IT director at the time, also joined the mix.
After a bit of research, the four IT administrators decided to equip their students with Lenovo ThinkPad X61 tablets, issued an RFP and selected a local Lenovo representative, through whom they negotiated a group price. All told, they bought 800 tablets, saving $200 on each of the $1,600 machines. "That was year one," Schaeper says of the collaboration.
Since then, the informal group has morphed into the Greater Cincinnati Non-Public Consortium (GCNPC), which has saved its 20 member schools thousands of dollars on hardware and software. Schools throughout the state that have heard of the group have expressed so much interest that the consortium is considering forming regional bases. "In the last month, I know of three schools that have joined," Fuell says.
GCNPC's success is hardly surprising. Schools and districts around the country have long turned to consortiums to drive down costs, but the benefits are clearer than ever in today's economic climate. Not only are members able to secure group discounts, but they also save time and money by issuing RFPs together and expand their pool of expertise by collaborating and sharing ideas.
The big question, says John Kost, group vice president at Gartner Research, is why more districts don't participate in consortiums. "It's almost tragic," he says of the lost economies of scale. The simple reason why they won't participate, he explains, is because too many purchasing managers suffer from "not-invented-here syndrome." They feel they need to go through their own procurement processes to get the best deals. "I get so frustrated talking to public officials who don't understand what's happening with procurement," Kost adds, "and with the fact that their procurement managers are often so focused on process rather than outcomes."
Sheila Simmons, director of media and technology services for California's Rescue Union School District, certainly gets it. The seven-school district belongs to two consortiums: an informal county group and CalSAVE, a statewide program for K-12 schools.
"The value for us is truly the price point," she says of her district's CalSAVE membership. "That, plus the ease of securing hardware and software without having to go out to bid – they do the work for us," she explains. "We're a small district of about 4,100 students, and there's no way we could negotiate those kinds of prices."
The other advantage is that CalSAVE stands behind the products it recommends, so she knows the consortium's offerings are high-quality. Plus, she adds, "There's no obligation on our part. It's free to become a member."
Given the experience she's had with consortiums, "I would highly recommend all districts" look into them, Simmons continues. "Anything we can do to save money is going to help our districts to survive this economic crisis. Our students deserve the best, and consortiums help maximize the value of educational technology."
Members of the GCNPC experienced the power of banding together a few months after ordering the Lenovo tablets in summer 2008. That fall, Schaeper found that the tablets at Seton High School kept running into the same problem: Parts of the attached pens were breaking off. Lenovo said it hadn't heard of the issue from other customers, but when Schaeper brought it up at a monthly GCNPC meeting in early 2009, his fellow members said they were having similar problems with their tablets. So Fuell arranged a conference call with the manufacturer, which eventually sent out new pens to the schools and improved the accessory's design.
Consortium members – all schools with small IT staffs – have benefited in other ways as well. They now have access to the knowledge and insight of dozens of IT experts. "We share our best practices, we share new tools, we share ideas that are going on in the classrooms," Schaeper says.
"This has contributed greatly in developing these consortium members' schools into technology leaders in the Cincinnati area," Fuell adds. Some members have demonstrated for the group how they use Microsoft Windows Deployment Services and DyKnow classroom management software, as well as how to conduct an effective site survey to ensure a wireless network is strong enough to support one-to-one computing. Other members then adopt those same technologies in their schools or, if they already have them, learn new ways to use them.
In January 2010, Schaeper and the IT staff at Seton High created a test bed for Microsoft Live@edu, and Fuell's team at McAuley High did the same for Google Apps for Education. They then opened each test environment to the consortium members to try out.
Photo: Mark Wallheiser
There are plenty of perks, but the consortium also has its challenges. For starters, the schools have to agree on what they're buying. For a recent computer purchase, for instance, the members started with nine hardware configurations. Some wanted large hard drives, others small; some preferred a touch screen, others a keyboard. But when the vendors under consideration explained that the multiple options eliminated economies of scale, the group had to whittle down the list to four configurations.
"Every school has to give," says Schaeper, who sacrificed his first-choice processor. "It can be like herding cats. But in the end, the price is definitely worth the effort."
As the consortium has grown, it's run into an awkward situation: Schools that compete for the same students have joined the group. So far, this development hasn't been a roadblock, but it's something the group continues to monitor. "You have to be able to work together respectfully," Schaeper says.
Schaeper suggests that smaller consortiums limit themselves to members with similar demographics. "If the schools are very disparate, the needs are going to be very disparate," he says. Because all Greater Cincinnati Non-Public Consortium schools are tuition-based, they have similar funding mechanisms. As the consortium grows, "you can start adding a little more disparity," he explains.
Another challenge is the time it takes to keep the consortium running. "Everything productive takes time – organizing and managing consortium partnerships, developing special hardware and software pricing, and meetings outside of the normal work day," Fuell says. "But in the end, like the extra time many teachers give students, the time spent on this consortium is more than worth it for the benefit of our students."
Membership Has Its Privileges
It's not just smaller, newer consortiums that experience such challenges. The Panhandle Area Educational Consortium in Chipley, Fla., which was created in 1967, still struggles to compromise on equipment.
PAEC currently is evaluating new data management and analysis software, and it's tough to get 14 districts to agree on it, says Patrick McDaniel, the organization's executive director. "It's really a give-and-take among so many districts. It's like a marriage," he says. But it's very rewarding, he adds, "when it all comes together for the benefit of our districts."
Dr. Sandra M. Cook, chair of PAEC's board of directors, witnessed the value of the organization firsthand when she started as superintendent of the Washington County District School Board in Chipley in 2008. After teaching for 30 years, she knew how much her district's schools needed new computers, but she didn't have the budget for them.
So she turned to Rick Everitt, PAEC's program coordinator for technology support, who connected her with a company that refurbishes computers. If Cook had purchased new computers, she would only have been able to afford 20 to 25 of them. Instead, she bought three computer labs' worth of machines – 80 devices total, and all less than a year old.
PAEC "opened some doors that we might not have known about," Cook recalls. "They have so many more connections because vendors do realize the power in numbers. I don't have but 3,500 students in my district."
PAEC is the oldest of Florida's three educational consortiums established by state statute. Its 14 member districts have student bodies ranging from 1,100 to 8,500. The superintendents of those districts sit on PAEC's board of directors, which, many say, is the secret to its success. "We understand what our districts need," Cook says.
The PAEC staff follow the lead of the superintendents. "We look at ourselves here as an extension of their staff," McDaniel says. For instance, at a board meeting three years ago, a superintendent said she wanted a system that could combine student information and professional development data so she could identify teachers who need training based on their students' performance. In response, PAEC developed Dashboard, a system that makes that information available to all the districts in the consortium.
Membership in the consortium is free, but larger districts that aren't members can pay a fee to participate in some of PAEC's programs, such as its international professional development broadcasts. All state districts and other governmental agencies can make purchases through the contracts that PAEC negotiates. And because PAEC is a member of the Association of Educational Purchasing Agencies, even other states can take advantage of the pricing it negotiates with vendors.
The price differences can be staggering. In a small district, a single piece of technology can cost 10 times what it would cost in a large district, Everitt says. Plus, rural districts get a lot less funding, "so we get hit with a double whammy." But participating on a national level, he adds, "helps level that playing field a lot."
"I don't know what we would do without PAEC," Cook says. "We would be in a world of hurt."
The Big Idea
A common theme when discussing consortiums is that they're valuable for small- and medium-size districts but not for large ones, which can get bulk discounts on their own. But Jane Berglund doesn't see it that way.
Berglund is CIO for the Anchorage (Alaska) School District and president-elect of the Organization for Educational Technology & Curriculum's board of directors. She says OETC, a consortium for schools nationwide that is based in Sherwood, Ore., has been invaluable to her district, which serves 50,000 students in 99 schools.
"It's that bigger-bang-for-your-buck thing," Berglund explains. "We get good prices to begin with, but OETC almost always gets better prices."
What's more, the consortium helps her district keep track of licenses – a big undertaking for a district of Anchorage's size. And OETC's staff is knowledgeable. When Berglund had a question about Microsoft licensing structures, for instance, she got a clear answer – and, she adds, a neutral one. "They aren't the vendor, so they aren't trying to sell you this one thing. They're agnostic."
OETC negotiates with vendors, handles the RFP process and then lets schools purchase directly through its online store, which has an ever-expanding selection, Berglund says. For all the benefits, she adds, there's little cost. "We pay $300 a year to be a member. It's extremely affordable." Other than the fee, members don't have to do anything. "As a basic member, it's not a time investment at all," she says. "It's actually a timesaver."
To weigh the value of a consortium, Berglund suggests districts join and track the savings on their purchases for the first year. If they're greater than the cost of membership, she says, "I have trouble thinking of reasons why you wouldn't want to do it."
Consortium members and observers share more benefits of participation at edtechmag.com/k12/consortiums211.
To Join or Not to Join?
Before signing on with a consortium, ask the following questions:
- What are the consortium's goals?
- Is there a fee involved? If so, what is it used for?
- Are there requirements for membership?
- How much time will you need to devote to the group?
- Will you have to give up control over anything by being a member?
- Who's in charge?
- Will you be able to work cooperatively with other members?