The General Services Administration (GSA) is considering giving public schools and universities unprecedented access to a pre-negotiated list of deeply discounted technology tools and services once reserved solely for federal government agencies. GSA officials say the plan potentially could spare schools millions of dollars in technology-related costs each year.

But the proposal has its hitches, some observers say. For one, vendors that do business with the federal government would have the option of declining to accept orders from schools. For another, state and local procurement laws might preclude some entities from taking advantage of potential price breaks.

GSA is in the process of reviewing public comments regarding its proposed amendment to the General Services Administration Acquisition Regulation (GSAR) to implement Section 211 of the eGovernment Act of 2002. The amendment would allow state and local government entities—including schools—to purchase “automated data processing equipment” from GSA’s Federal Supply Schedule (FSS). This includes all firmware, software, supplies, support equipment, and services contained in Schedule 70 of the federal supply classification code for information technology (IT).

The types of products and services provided under Schedule 70 include leasing agreements for IT equipment and short-term equipment rental services, as well as the purchase of computer, telephone, and radio equipment.

The schedule also includes a list of vendors specializing in equipment maintenance, classroom training services, electronic commerce, telecommunications services, financial management software, assistive technology for the physically challenged, and seat management programs.

According to the proposal, the GSAR amendment would include a series of clauses to address supply-schedule purchasing by eligible non-federal parties as it relates to scope, usage, payment, and the handling of disputes.

Importantly, the amendment also likely would provide a “voluntary-use clause” that would enable suppliers to deny purchase orders from state and local entities on a case-by-case basis.

Though specific grounds for these denials were not available at press time, the clause harbors a potential problem for schools and universities that must decide whether the time and money required to seek federally discounted services is worth the risk of denial.

Smaller districts stand to gain

Elvis Eaglin, senior procurement team leader for the Houston Independent School District—the nation’s seventh largest school system—contends the proposed rule change would do little for larger school districts, because bigger operations generally have enough buying power to negotiate better bargains on their own terms.

“With over 300 schools, I normally can go out and negotiate and get my own deal,” he said. Sometimes large school districts can meet or beat any co-op’s price, he added.

Smaller districts, however, have the most to gain from the plan, Eaglin said. Provided that purchase orders are met and not denied by vendors, the rule change represents a potential windfall for smaller school districts, primarily because they lack the full-scale bargaining power of the nation’s larger operations.

What it really comes down to, Eaglin said, is whether or not schools are capable of securing better deals elsewhere.

For instance, Texas already offers a wholesale technology procurement service called the BuyBoard to its schools, where institutions are allowed to log on and take advantage of a slew of discounts quoted specifically for state agencies.

While Eaglin admitted he was unsure whether access to the GSAR’s pricing schedule would enable large school districts, including Houston, to save extra money on technology purchases, he did say the statewide co-op has proven to be beneficial, especially in those instances where time was a factor.

Sometimes, he said, schools are not in a position to seek out the lowest bidder. When time is of the essence, purchasing officials need a fallback that guarantees good pricing at a moment’s notice. That’s where co-ops such as the one proposed by the GSAR come in.

No contract flexibility

Unfortunately, for some schools, tapping into federal pricing lists might be easier said than done, even if such an amendment is passed. That’s because every supply-schedule purchase made by eligible non-federal agencies would be required to follow the exact terms of the GSAR’s Schedule 70 contract, without making the necessary modifications to appease state and local laws.

For instance, in the state of Texas, purchasing contracts are required by law to employ specific language designed to govern how state agencies expend public funds. If this language is not included in the contract, then the contract is void, according to an attorney with the state’s Department of Information Resources (DIR), the agency responsible for procuring “information resources technologies” for government entities across the state.

“Each state and local government has its own policies related to expenditure of its funds; prohibiting any changes to Schedule 70 contracts will thwart the participation of state and local government instead of enhancing it,” wrote DIR attorney Cynthia Hill in comments submitted to GSA about its proposed rule change.

Whether schools tap into the FSS or not, some educators contend it’s comforting just to know the option is out there.

“It appears to me that this will simply give state and local education agencies one more choice in purchasing. Unless this is an ‘all or nothing’ proposition, in which the agency must make a single choice for all purchases throughout the year, the flexibility still remains with the agency rather than the vendor,” said Raymond Yeagley, superintendent of schools in Rochester, N.H.

“It doesn’t appear that the agency would be forced to purchase through the GSAR plan if it could find a lower price through competitive bid, a state contract, a purchasing consortium, or another means,” Yeagley added. “Further, if a local vendor declined to give the FSS prices, the agency could certainly seek another vendor that would honor the federal pricing schedule.”

Low-income districts, in particular, might want to look into that possibility, he suggested.

“We see no downside to having one more strategy available when we look at technology purchases,” he said. “If the GSAR allows us to take advantage of federal pricing, we will look at that option, along with all the others, and select the method that works best for each particular situation.”

GSA officials declined to speculate how long it would take to review comments regarding the proposed rule change and would not project when the amendment would be finalized.

See these related links:

General Services Administration
http://www.gsa.gov

Schedule 70 Information Technology Products and Services
http://www.gsa.gov/Portal/content/offerings_content.jsp?contentOID=116942&contentype=1004