School purchasing professionals “have a lot to keep up with,” according to Pam Perkins, program specialist, Consumer Protection Division of the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Perkins, who has spent many years investigating claims of illegal purchasing activity such as price-fixing and bid-rigging, was one of three experts to speak on August 25 at Harris County Department of Education for a joint meeting of HCDE’s School Finance Council and TASBO’s Gulf Coast chapter.
More than 80 school business leaders went to hear Perkins speak, along with Mark Rogers, a longtime procurement specialist, and Sarah Langlois, an attorney with Rogers, Morris and Grover, LLP. The three presenters shared their expertise on a number of procurement-related issues and offered the following as advice.
1. Perception is reality.
Both Perkins and Rogers emphasized the importance not just of transparent purchasing practices but of withstanding varying levels of public scrutiny – from careless speculation to full-fledged audits.
“Avoid the intent and appearance of unethical or compromising practices,” Rogers said, emphasizing that even the appearance of misconduct can be enough to cause harm to an organization. Perkins agreed.
“Welcome the openness,” she said. “Conduct yourself as if everything you do will end up in the newspaper.”
While actual purchasing law does not always match the public’s perception of what it should be – or, as Perkins put it, “just because you think something is hinky doesn’t mean it’s against the law” – both presenters agreed nevertheless that purchasing professionals have an obligation to show the public that their hands are clean.
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” Perkins said, summing it up.
2. Sole source providers are rare.
As many procurement professionals know, the law provides exemptions from the traditional “get three quotes” bidding process for purchases that are so unique that they can’t be acquired from multiple vendors. The relative ease of procuring from so-called “sole source providers,” however, has led many participants in the education and government markets to use the term too loosely.
“There must be no functional equivalent in the marketplace” for a product or service to qualify as sole source, according to Langlois, which means that sole source providers are actually “very rare.”
Perkins pointed out that many companies – particularly those with patented products or proprietary processes, such as software developers – mislead clients into believing that they are sole source providers in order to hurry a deal through to close. Others simply misunderstand the law or interpret it too loosely. Purchasing professionals must do their due diligence to verify that vendors claiming to be sole source providers actually are, while understanding that, in most cases, they probably aren’t.
3. Cooperative purchasing helps.
Membership in a purchasing cooperative – especially one like HCDE Choice Partners that does its due diligence and operates according to the “gold standard” of procurement – has a way of easing concerns about legality and trust, but co-op members still have some work to do to make sure their resources are being used properly.
“Everybody benefits” when it comes to co-ops, Rogers said, pointing out that school districts both large and small can rely on the “toolbox” of cooperative contracts when their needs exceed their own means.
It is the responsibility of the entity, however, to verify that a vendor holds an up-to-date contract with a fully compliant co-op.
“Make sure vendors are on the up and up,” he said.
Learning about a co-op’s contracts, verifying its legality, and making use of networking events to check references are all ways to get the most out of cooperative purchasing.
For more information about HCDE Choice Partners contracts, or to become a member, go to www.ChoicePartners.org/membership.