Play 5 – Leverage Bulk Purchasing to Optimize Use of Funds
During the COVID-19 pandemic and sudden shift to remote learning for most schools, many districts suddenly needed to purchase devices, mobile hotspots, learning management systems, and other hardware, software, or services to ensure continuity of learning for students. States and regional education service agencies stepped up to support districts by offering centrally managed procurement vehicles or contracts that leveraged bulk purchasing power or longer contract timelines to increase affordability. Some states also led negotiations with ISPs to target construction of new broadband infrastructure to un-served communities, temporarily remove data caps, or provide low-cost internet service plans.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What is a Service Level Agreement (SLA)?
An SLA is an agreement between the vendor and client that lays out expectations for the service type and service quality and how issues will be remediated if requirements are not met. Establishing an SLA can create clarity among the vendor and client and may limit the potential for misinterpretation and roadblocks that may pop up. SLAs are not necessarily required but may be useful for any technology contract. Vendor SLAs are generally written from a vendor’s point-of-view and may or may not be amendable. LEAs are encouraged to seek knowledgeable legal assistance when reviewing technology SLAs.
Play in Practice
Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) offers bulk-purchasing through Mississippi Connects
In 2020, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) launched the Mississippi Connects program to ensure that every Mississippi public school student had the technology needed to continue learning at school or home during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the state also saw an opportunity to use the emergency funding as a catalyst to jumpstart Mississippi districts’ transition to digital learning. The Mississippi Legislature allocated $200 million to the Connects program through two laws, the Equity in Distance Learning Act (SB 3044) and the Mississippi Pandemic Response Broadband Availability Act (HB 1788). Mississippi Connects takes a multi-prong approach—addressing district needs for device access, internet connectivity, high-quality digital instructional materials, professional development for teachers, and student access to telehealth services.
MDE set up a bulk purchasing system through which districts could purchase laptops or tablets for students and teachers. In addition to providing bulk purchasing support, the state offered software and services support – all devices were delivered to districts pre-loaded with software, security, and support features and configured for immediate use. Mississippi Connects is also offering on-site repair and replacement services through June 2023. Mississippi Connects covered up to 80 percent of the device costs for school districts using the bulk purchasing system if districts covered at least 20 percent of costs. As of September 2020, districts had placed orders for 320,000 devices.
Texas’ Operation Connectivity offers bulk purchasing and matching funds
Texas’ Operation Connectivity was launched in spring 2020 by the Governor’s office, Texas Legislature, and Texas Education Agency (TEA) to ensure all Texas public school students have a device and internet connection. On July 17, 2020, the Governor announced that the state had allocated $200 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to TEA to support the purchase of devices and internet connectivity. Using the funding, TEA established a reimbursement program for school districts that included a state matching component based on the number of economically disadvantaged students in the district. To secure reduced prices and timely delivery of devices, TEA utilized the Region 4 Education Service Center (ESC) to offer a bulk purchasing program for districts. In order to participate, school boards had to approve an interlocal agreement with the Region 4 ESC. Interlocal contracts are governed by Texas’ Interlocal Cooperation Act which aims to improve efficiencies by allowing local governments to contract with other local governments or state agencies to support governmental services or functions, including purchasing. As of August 2020, 700,000 devices and 300,000 hotspots have been requested for bulk purchase by over 800 Texas LEAs.
Checklist & Key Questions
- Use data to estimate the need. (Play 2)
- How many student and teacher devices are needed?
- How many students and teachers need internet connectivity? Consider which connectivity solutions will be most appropriate and sustainable based on the available infrastructure.
- Work with the state information technology department, public service commission, public utilities commission, state broadband office, or other agency to understand the range of ISPs operating in your state, the available internet services and cost, and the existing relationships.
- Which locations have existing broadband access that can quickly connect unconnected households through monthly internet service plans?
- Are there areas in your state where fiber is not a viable solution due to terrain, Tribal lands, or public lands?
- Are there areas where mobile hotspots are not a viable solution due to limited cellular service?
- Are there areas where satellite is not a viable solution due to terrain?
- Understand local, state, and federal contracting rules or requirements.
- Are there existing purchasing agreements in place at either the state-level or regional intermediate unit-level (e.g., bulk purchasing co-ops, National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO) participating agreements) that can be utilized?
- What state or local procurement policies are in place? Is there flexibility regarding state or local policies due to the pandemic?
- Consider creating the option for districts to participate in a larger state bulk purchase.
- Develop a robust menu of options so schools may purchase the hardware and internet service that best fit their needs. (Play 4)
- Work with technology practitioners (e.g., LEA CIOs, CTOs) to research technical requirements and assemble a list of hardware, software, or services that will be offered through bulk purchasing agreements.
- What hardware (e.g., laptops, tablets) and software (e.g., learning management systems) are districts currently using?
- Do the providers you’re considering have the capacity to handle a large capacity orders (e.g., supply chain, distribution workflows, device management, technical support)?
- Reach out to providers to determine how they can support your needs.
- Identify your target outcomes and requirements and engage vendors.
- In addition to purchasing devices, what are your warranty, repair service, technical support, asset management, software, replacement, project management, and professional development needs?
- Can you negotiate lower pricing by lengthening the contract or purchasing a larger number of devices by aggregating across all district needs?