Keys for procurement success in the new school year—and all summer to start the conversation. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Daniel Smith

In the waning days of summer each year, just before school starts here in Seattle, a nonprofit I work with organizes volunteers to support dozens of local public schools.

Members of the community lend a hand to teachers and principals by hauling trash, sprucing up classrooms, and re-stocking school supplies.

The educators’ passion and creative energy is contagious.

Perhaps because of my role in Education at Amazon, I end up asking teachers how they find and buy what they need for the classroom.

I am always amazed by how hard educators work to stretch back-to-school dollars, and how many steps they have to go through to make purchases.

“I am always amazed by how hard educators work to stretch back-to-school dollars, and how many steps they have to go through to make purchases.”

I also understand why K-12 administrators ask educators to follow financial controls and purchasing compliance steps.

As one of the most innovative public school superintendents in the country put it on a recent panel we both participated in:

“Sadly, I will not lose my job over children not learning and becoming great productive citizens. I will lose my job over a financial or procurement miss.”

This year, let’s have a conversation about how 2018 can be the best back-to-school season yet for our teachers, and worry-free for superintendents, administrators, and principals who can focus on driving the learning outcomes we want for students.

I’ll get us started by sharing a few best practices I have gleaned from K-12 districts, schools, and teachers across the country.

Cost-Effective

If your experience is anything like the majority of K-12 educators and administrators with whom I speak, discretionary budgets are tight.

District staff and principals want to encourage classroom creativity, but the money isn’t always there.

Schools need more dollars, and must make the dollars they have go further.

DonorsChoose.org is a nonprofit that allows individuals to donate directly to school classroom projects.

Teachers use DonorsChoose.org to find more dollars for creating a nurturing and creative learning environment in their classrooms.

One recent DonorsChoose.org teacher project that Amazon Business helped fulfill which stood out to me: Feel Well, Look Well, Learn Well! It provided clean socks and underwear to kids in their class, along with other wellness products.

At Amazon Business, we also help educators stretch existing dollars further – whether those dollars are school funds or come out of teachers’ wallets – to create learning opportunities for children.

On our marketplace, educators find sellers offering everything from art supplies to STEM kits to basic hygiene products, as well as access single item and quantity discounts on millions of items.

Tens of thousands of K-12 districts, schools, and even individual school departments and PTAs have registered for free Amazon Business accounts to get the most out of their back-to-school budgets.

Convenient

One director of K-12 special education school told me that she drives 45 minutes to buy tactile sand.

A middle school teacher once talked me through how eight people must approve even small transactions less than $100.

An administrator described how it takes weeks to get science supplies, like frog dissection kits, manually quoted from individual suppliers to then order by fax, have them shipped from the supplier to a warehouse, and finally delivered to the classroom.

Whether the story is about hard-to-find items or cumbersome buying processes, walk into any classroom in this country and you will likely hear similar anecdotes.

The average K-12 teacher placing an order waits up to 16 days for approval and another 5-10 days to receive the products.

By bringing their purchasing online, schools can fulfill orders in a more timely manner, driving a more adaptive learning environment and teaching attitude where educators can react to individual student needs in real-time.

Compliant

When I talk to superintendents, CFOs, and procurement professionals, I hear some version of this a lot:

“I am all for making things cost-effective and convenient for teachers, but I don’t want to end up in the newspaper…or worse! Are we following applicable procurement laws and regulations?”

Or:

“If we give educators more convenience and choice, how do we know their purchases are appropriate?”

Sound familiar? It should.

Federal, state, and local laws and regulations governing purchases are real, and compliance and financial oversight are not optional.

One thing I see in both public and private schools is the use of a cooperative contract. The concept is brilliantly simple:

If one school or district has negotiated a contract that follows a competitive process, chances are your school or district can “piggy-back” on that contract to legally purchase those products or services without having to go through your own lengthy RFP or public bidding process.

For the smaller dollar amount purchases, it can also eliminate the need to obtain multiple quotes from different vendors.

U.S. Communities cooperative purchase program is the vehicle that most K-12 officials tell me they trust, and it recently received accreditation from the National Institute of Government Purchasing.

Dozens of suppliers selling a broad array of back-to-school ready products are available through U.S. Communities.

As schools increasingly bring their procurement online, they should work with a retailer that has the right purchasing compliance tools their organization requires.

With the right tools in place, customers can shop tax-free if their organization is eligible, pay with a purchase order, restrict certain product purchases, require order review and approvals before teachers place an order, and get real-time data on every purchase.

Continue the Conversation

We would love to hear from you.

We still have a lot to learn and there is so much more we can (and should) do together.

What best practices does your K-12 district or school utilize to make back-to-school more delightful for educators and worry-free for administrators?

Daniel Smith is General Manager of Education at Amazon Business. He is an entrepreneurial growth leader and builds businesses from no team and $0 to hundreds of millions in revenue and global business units. With a global public sector industry focus, he has software-as-a-service (SaaS), e-commerce platform, and cloud infrastructure expertise. Now Seattle-based, he was formerly in London and Abu Dhabi for DELL. He’s an edtech co-founder and has a background in product management and UI/UX design. Connect with him on LinkedIn.