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Focus: District Procurement                            Page 11

 

Hands-On Participation in a Purchasing Request

BY RICHARD L. GAY

Focus

When our school board in March approved a $205 million contract to launch a 1:1 districtwide technology initiative, we opted to use a request for proposal to determine the most effective vendor.

This contrasts with what traditionally happens when a school system identifies a need for a particular product or service. The district usually issues an invitation for bid, known to purchasing agents as an IFB, and, following a public solicitation process, accepts a contract from the lowest-priced, responsive and responsible bidder.

An alternative is a request for proposals, or RFP. This is an active process in which the award of contract isn’t necessarily made to the lowest bidder, but rather may be based on multiple factors that create the best value for the school system. Factors for the award are predetermined and detailed in the RFP.

That made sense for us. The Baltimore County Public Schools was seeking a lease-refresh program for approximately 150,000 devices for students, teachers and staff to support the new 1:1 program. The initiative is part of the superintendent’s plan, Blueprint 2.0, to provide students with the skills and equipment to be 21st-century learners.

Student Input
While entire textbooks and classes are devoted to the RFP process by the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing and the Institute for Supply Management, two critical areas have special application to school district purchasing: (1) the specifications and (2) the evaluation.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the RFP process is determining the needs and specific requirements of the solicitation. The specifications include a unique narrative description of the products, services or results to be supplied by the awarded vendor. The specifications should focus on desired outcomes, written clearly and concisely.

Overly vague specifications will cause many problems as will specifications written in a proprietary way. Your district’s specification should be general enough to encourage competition, yet specific enough to leave no doubt what it is you want. Whenever possible, include or reference relevant documents such as handbooks, applicable illustrations, diagrams and tables, to assist in describing the outcome.

For our 1:1 Student Device Technology Program Initiative, the district developed specifications, in part using results obtained during field tests with teachers, principals and students. During these field tests, students performed activities on various machines to include reading online text and responding to prompts, writing reflections online and practicing math skills. Their observations were documented during the sessions and the students were surveyed about their hands-on experiences.

Comparing Proposals
Before issuing an RFP, you should devise an evaluation plan to assess the submitted proposals. The evaluation should include the procedure to be followed, the evaluation criteria and the selection of the evaluation team. Evaluation criteria can include a review of implementation services, a system acceptance, the experience and qualifications of the vendor, review of the proposed project team, and a review of costs associated with deployment, ongoing services and end of life. These will be important figures, as they dictate the development of your budget for the next several years.

Once the initial screening is complete, you will want to assemble your evaluation team. The team consists of procurement officials, end users and others with expertise or knowledge of the services or goods being acquired. In most cases, the evaluation team should be chaired by a representative from the school district’s purchasing division.

During the evaluation, each member should evaluate proposals independently and then as a team. Each member should keep a detailed record with a rationale for scoring. The evaluators should not discuss their scoring with nonteam persons or competing vendors prior to award. Any inquiries or questions should be directed to the lead procurement professional.

Multiple Evaluators
In the case of our district’s 1:1 student technology initiative, we evaluated and scored each respondent’s hardware, services and pricing. The three features were evaluated by different teams.

The hardware was subjected to rigorous evaluation by a team representing the departments of Technology, Purchasing and Digital Learning. The services were evaluated by a team representing various teachers and principals at all grade levels, as well as staff from the departments of Technology, Digital Learning, Purchasing and Organizational Development during two-hour oral presentations. Pricing was evaluated and negotiated by the purchasing office and the technology department.

The use of multiple teams allowed us to use subject-matter experts for each level of evaluation.

Using the RFP process, our district was able to select the vendor who provided the best overall value. It facilitated the selection of hardware that met minimum requirements, services that detailed initiative deployment and maintenance at a cost that was acceptable to the system.

Richard Gay is manager of purchasing for the Baltimore County Public Schools in Towson, Md. E-mail: rgay@bcps.org. Twitter: @rickgay

 

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