Streamlined purchasing

Editor’s note: This article profiles the services of Sourcewell, a corporate partner of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

As public entities, community colleges face varying requirements state by state when it comes to contracting. They generally need to put out a request-for-proposal and get a certain number of bids above a specific dollar threshold when they want to contract out, whether it’s for security, office supplies, computer services or furniture.

But they can save time, money and headaches by using the cooperative purchasing agency Sourcewell, previously known as the National Joint Powers Alliance, which releases nationwide RFPs and “scores” bids based on a set formula to choose the one with the best value. The agency then awards a four-year contract for each product or service category.

Available to all public entities, Sourcewell contracts were used by more than 2,800 higher education institutions during the 2018-19 school year, a figure that includes both two-year and four-year schools, says Katie Alba, membership development coordinator. These schools used more than 350 different types of contracts, she says, with office supplies and technology “definitely the big one.” Shipping, HVAC, fire protection and construction are other common contracts among two-year schools.

‘Doesn’t take a day’

The Alamo Community College District, with five schools in San Antonio, Texas, and elsewhere in Bexar County, began using Sourcewell’s contracts in July 2018. Among the suppliers the district has tapped are ezIQC for construction, CDW-G for technology, United Rentals, Johnson Controls Fire Protection and KI Furniture.

Whenever possible, Alamo’s central purchasing department attempts to use cooperative contracts like Sourcewell’s says Elisa Nava-Garcia, senior purchaser.

“It depends on what our customers, which are our top colleges, are wanting to purchase,” she says. “Depending on the item they’re wanting to purchase, we go out and look for vendors on a co-op contract. If it’s Sourcewell, we contact the company, get a quote and verify the pricing and so forth.”

Ordinarily, for contracts over $50,000, Alamo needs to put them to a formal bidding process and get additional pricing quotes, which takes considerably longer, Nava-Garcia says.

“It’s much easier for us because we don’t have a set dollar limit when we use a cooperative contract. We don’t have to go out for bid,” she says. “A lot of the vendors, we’ve already used them for a long time. We get the quote, they give us the list price, and we don’t need additional quotes. We just need the one.”

Related articles: ‘Pooling your purchasing power‘ and ‘Cooperative purchasing: Your contracts are ready

The central purchasing department receives an order from a department and finds the applicable contract on Sourcewell. “And we just process that,” Nava-Garcia says. “It doesn’t even take us one day.”

Otherwise, it can take weeks, she says.

“We have to go and get vendors that can quote the equivalent of the item the department is needing,” Garcia adds. “It has to be compatible. Some vendors can, and some can’t. We need to get three vendors, and we prefer two small or minority-owned vendors. Using cooperative contracts, we don’t have to do all of that. And it does result in some money savings because on a lot of them, they give us a discount — along with the flexibility that we’re able to do the order a lot quicker.”

Many of the purchasing department’s internal customers already know which vendors they normally use, in areas like furniture, or fire protection, Nava-Garcia says.

“They let us know, I need a quote from Johnson Controls, or whoever the vendor is, and we’ll go and contact that vendor. We’ll tell them, ‘We see that you’re on Sourcewell. Can you give us the pricing from that coop contract?”

Saves ‘humongous’ headaches

Madison Area Technical College (MATC) in Madison, Wisconsin, is another AACC member that’s happily availed itself of the opportunities provided through Sourcewell. Since July 2018, MATC has used CDW-G, Johnson Controls Fire Protection, and NAPA for auto parts, says Barbara Maguire, purchasing manager, who says all of the state system’s 16 campuses have auto shops.

“We don’t have the staff in purchasing to do RFPs and bids,” she says. “We search for contracting all the time. It’s decentralized purchasing, all done on different campuses. We would spend hours searching for contracts to get our staff what they want. It saves us tons and tons of time. RFPs are an eight-week process, at least. You are doing anything to save time.”

The Johnson Controls contract for fire protection, security and safety has been especially critical as MATC builds a new campus, Maguire says.

“The technical colleges all use NAPA a lot,” she says. “All of the [state’s] technical colleges probably use the same contract.”

Ordinarily, MATC would need to go out to bid for any purchases over $50,000, and it probably couldn’t afford to purchase through NAPA, or Johnson Controls, Maguire says.

“The headaches are huge — and the headaches saved are humongous,” she says.” The time saving is huge. And the pricing is always very good, too. They’re great contracts. We use them a lot.”

Maguire figures not only other community colleges but also public entities in general benefit greatly from Sourcewell and coop contracts more broadly.

“That is huge, in government,” she says. “Most places prefer to piggyback on a contract than to do your own bid. With your own bid, you don’t know that the price is going to be better than Sourcewell. We use them all the time, and we always will. And I’m sure the same is true for other technical college in Wisconsin. We couldn’t survive without our cooperative contracts.”

About the Author

Ed Finkel
is an education writer based in Illinois.