By participating in collaboratives or cooperatives, districts and schools can more effectively fulfill initiatives around things like sustainability or just bargain for more competitive prices on contracts.
One Ohio cooperative reports that its members save up to 40% via their combined buying power on over $200 million in annual expenditures.
As the old saying goes, there's strength in numbers. While the wording they use may vary, whether it be "cooperative" or "collaborative," school districts have found this to be especially true in recent years, joining forces to leverage their collective resources and buying power amid ongoing budget austerity nationwide.
Perhaps the most highly publicized of these efforts is The Green School Alliance District Collaborative, a group of 21 school districts that partnered on their sustainability efforts. The districts involved districts ranging from the size of the New York City Department of Education and Chicago Public Schools to Fayette County Public Schools in Kentucky and Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.
"Over the years, district sustainability officials had shared frustrations over higher prices for more sustainable products and policies that encumbered their work," Green Schools Alliance Executive Director Dr. Sharon Jaye wrote of the effort last year on the U.S. Department of Education's Homeroom blog. "This sparked a conversation about collaborating to affect major change, particularly in purchasing. Instead of creating their own separate association, they asked the Green Schools Alliance to house the coalition."
Elsewhere, similar efforts have aimed to improve STEM education opportunities. One such example in Appalachia, the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, have aimed to equip educators with the skill sets needed to prepare students for high-demand fields using micro-credentials. Additionally, the cooperative's 22 member districts could soon repurpose coal-mined land for a proposed $25 million drone-port and community workspace with a 3,500-foot runway, a bid that could also assist in revitalizing the regional economy by attracting new companies and research.
Perhaps most common, however, are purchasing cooperatives like those facilitated by the National Intergovernmental Purchasing Alliance (National IPA). These co-ops provide districts with a large number of vendors, establishing competitive pricing and quality for a wide selection of items like educational furniture, supplies, technology, food services, playground equipment, instructional support, sports equipment, and uniforms for school and sports. By providing a high-volume sales opportunity to vendors, the districts involved can then negotiate better prices for goods and services.
Specifically, the National IPA cites the following benefits of participating in such cooperatives on its site: less administrative burden, more opportunities to increase efficiency in procuring goods and services, cost savings through nationally leveraged pricing, no costs to participating districts, and opportunities for participating districts to utilize the best purchasing procedures for the most competitive contracts.
As the Ohio School Boards Association noted in an article, these efforts can save a district millions while showing the local community that they are being mindful of how they spend tax dollars, particularly on noninstructional costs. According to Southwestern Ohio Educational Purchasing Council Executive Director Ken S. Swink, his cooperative's members spend over $200 million each year while saving as much as 40% as a result of combining their buying power.
The benefits can't be understated, especially when it comes to pricey tech services or negotiating broadband rates. The latter especially may be much more necessary should the Federal Communications Commission's E-rate program see significant changes under the current administration.
With state and federal budget cuts alike unlikely to stop or turn around anytime soon, these efforts will only become more critical as schools and districts work to acquire the tools needed to best prepare students for postsecondary education and adult life.