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Legislative session results in weak funding increase

Posted on August 3, 2015

Texas’ 84th Legislative Session passed a budget that increased funding for the Texas Education Agency (TEA), but school finance experts argue that the increase is significantly smaller than it may seem. Joe Wisnoski  of Moak, Casey & Associates covered the highlights of the session at a recent Harris County Department of Education School Finance Council and TASBO Gulf Coast meeting.

“Despite all the rhetoric, the actual investment is not as high as you might have expected,” Joe Wisnoski, a legal consultant from Moak, Casey & Associates, said. The Austin-based firm specializes in school finance policy.

All funds for the TEA went up 5.6%, Wisnoski explained to those gathered at the School Finance Council and Gulf Coast TASBO meeting at the Harris County Department of Education on July 23, but when homestead exemptions are factored in, the increase amounts to about 3.2%.

The main priority for the legislative session, the first for both newly elected Governor Greg Abbot and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, was tax relief for Texas homeowners.  Lawmakers signed a bill that would increase the homestead exemption from $15,000 to $25,000, but voters must first approve this measure in November.

While the Texas House and Senate passed a little over a hundred bills, only three will have a meaningful effect on Texas schools, according to Wisnoski.

“Roughly one sixth of the legislation could have had an impact on school districts, but many of the bills did not pass,” Wisnoski said, adding that while ten education bills did pass, “only three are really impactful.” The three he mentioned are the basic allotment in the budget (House Bill 1), the homestead exemption increase (Senate Bill 1), and the fractional funding fix in House Bill 7.

With expenses on the rise and weak funding hikes barely making up the difference, school districts may be looking for ways to stretch their budgets even further. Becoming a member of Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) and its purchasing cooperative, Choice Partners, is a good way to maximize available funds. By signing an interlocal agreement, school districts gain access to contracts for facilities, food, technology, supplies and services. These contracts meet all procurement law, and membership is free.

Next week’s blog will discuss the implications of another Texas law requiring schools to install security cameras in special education classrooms. The law is scheduled to take effect at the start of the 2016-2017 school year.

Harris County Department of Education creates value, delivers opportunity and provides service for Texas educators and schools                                            Choice Partners cooperative

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Improving purchasing practices

Posted on July 28, 2015

Setting up a fair and logical process with written procedures will improve your purchasing practices, according to consultant Mark Rogers, who spoke at a workshop about purchasing practices at Harris County Department of Education’s School Finance Council and Gulf Coast TASBO event last week. Rogers presented with Jesus Amezcua, calling Amezcua “Mr. EDGAR” due to his knowledge about the new federal law.

Rogers discussed professional and consulting services contracts. He stressed the need to appropriately categorize services, strictly observing the most restrictive of policy or law, carefully documenting each step along the way and making sure that processes are transparent and legal.

“The most important thing when you select someone to provide services is that the process you use needs to make sense and be defensible,” said Rogers, who boasts 35 years’ experience in public purchasing. “Hopefully you didn’t do it just because the guy is your brother-in-law.”


Another key to purchasing is categorizing services appropriately. Professional services, such as those provided by an accountant or architect, are distinguished from manual or so-called “practicable” services.
In Texas, some professional services, enumerated by the Professional Services Procurement Act (PSPA) in Chapter 2254 of the Texas Government Code, are prohibited by law from being procured through the bidding process outlined there and in section 44.031.

“The theory behind this is that the bidding process would select the least competent person and you don’t want to procure brain surgery on the lowest bid,” Rogers joked.

The PSPA explicitly lists accounting, architecture, landscape architecture, land surveying, medicine, optometry, engineering, real estate appraising, and professional nursing as services that cannot be acquired through competitive bid. Instead, they are selected on the basis of demonstrated competence and qualifications, then negotiated for a fair and reasonable price.

HCDE and its purchasing cooperative, Choice Partners, follow the competitive procurement requirements of Chapter 44 of the Texas Education Code when contracting with services providers such as speakers, education consultants and other service providers that do not fall into the category of statutorily defined professional services. For construction-related goods and services, HCDE follows procedures outlined in Chapter 2269 of the Texas Government Code. Both Chapter 44 and Chapter 2269 require application of the PSPA to certain types of contracts.


When determining the proper process for selecting services, Rogers suggested caution in setting the dollar threshold for when and what selection process to use.

“Observe the most restrictive of board policy or state law, and then you’ll keep yourself out of trouble,” he said.

Rogers also mentioned the importance of following precedent when making purchasing decisions, jokingly referring to “bleeding edge” purchasers whose cleverness ends up compromising the legality of their practices.

“If you’re going to be a pioneer and do something for the first time, then you need to be particularly careful,” he explained.

In addition to professional services and consulting services, Rogers talked about the legal challenges of procuring “sole source” services. A sole source purchase, he explained, should be made only after a good-faith review of available sources has been conducted. There must be only one source for the required services.

“Most of the time services are not sole source,” said Rogers, although he recognizes that it is common for administrators to want exceptions and call something sole source. ”Patented or copyrighted items may be sole source, but most of the time they are not. If the functional equivalent is available, it is not sole source,”  he said.

He stressed that documentation is critical throughout any purchasing process.

“It’s got to be defensible,” Rogers said, adding words for any purchasing professional to live by: “Everything we do, we should be able to defend how we got there.”

EDGAR

The new federal Education Department General Administrative Regulations (EDGAR) apply to new and continuation federal grants awarded on or after Dec. 26, 2014. Jesus Amezcua, HCDE assistant superintendent for business services, said that HCDE has made a number of changes to ensure that HCDE is compliant and is following the appropriate EDGAR regulations on all of its procurements and contracts. Amezcua said changes to procedures are already taking place and policy changes are forthcoming from TASB Policy Services. Additionally, vendors are required to execute EDGAR certifications as part of the procurement process for both HCDE and Choice Partners.  

“From a cooperative perspective, know that if you buy something from us, be assured that Choice Partners folks are complying with the new EDGAR rules and will supply members with documentation showing that,” said Amezcua.

Robert B. Fazakerly, Fort Bend ISD director of purchasing and materials management, said, “My experience is that Choice Partners is further along on that.”

                        Harris County Department of Education                         Choice Partners national cooperative - the HCDE purchasing cooperative

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Disaster preparation rests on documentation

Posted on July 16, 2015

Storm clouds, bolts of lightning, people and pets running for cover—the images called up by the word “disaster,” right? But if you attended the Choice Partners disaster preparedness workshop at Harris County Department of Education on July 15, you are probably picturing dollar signs, legal pads and mounds of paperwork. According to presenters at the three-hour lunch meeting, that’s what a disaster, in the legal sense of the word, amounts to.

“The only thing worse than a disaster is having to recover without the available funds you need,” said Tony Alaniz of Adjusters International, which holds an HCDE awarded contract through Choice Partners cooperative.having fun at the disaster workshop


Speaking to a group of facilities, procurement and safety managers from entities around Houston, Alaniz emphasized the financial—and legal—nature of disaster planning.

“It can be critical that the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed throughout the process,” he said, on the subject of insurance claims and working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “Insurance claims can be drawn out, unforgiving and, if it’s a presidentially declared disaster, highly scrutinized,” Alaniz added.

In addition to FEMA and insurance best practices, learning about topics such as mitigation, procurement and greater safety and security for schools were major goals of the workshop.

Attendees reported that the speakers made an impact. “This is good training for us, very informative and practical,” said Sophia Chang, an assistant director for the city of Houston. “The presenters are very experienced and knowledgeable.”

Chang added that the workshop was “a very good foundation” for members of her staff, who “do a lot of ‘number crunching’ and tracking of all the disaster supporting documentation.”

The importance of documentation during a crisis emerged several times throughout the workshop. “Document, document, document,” Alaniz repeated.

“Documentation was emphasized, especially taking pictures,” echoed Jeff Spears, purchasing coordinator, city of Friendswood. “That is always a good thing to do.”

But be reasonable, cautioned Sheree Kroeger, safety program specialist, HCDE Center for Safe and Secure Schools (CSSS). “Don’t stop in the middle of an emergency situation to write things down,” she said. The absurdity drew laughs from the crowd.shaking hands on a good deal

The emphasis on legal note-taking, however, was not meant to undermine the emotional turmoil that a crisis situation can cause, whether it’s a drought, flood, tornado, train derailment, shooting or other type of natural or man-made event. Disasters require preparedness simply because, in the moment, they can be chaotic. The goal is to learn from past mistakes and not to be unnecessarily naïve about the likelihood of an event.

“Crises will occur in schools,” Kroeger said. “It’s not a question of if, but when.”

She went on to describe the importance not just of having a plan, but of reviewing, updating and practicing it.

Kroeger got the point across. “It was interesting, being from the city, I really learned a lot about the school district side of purchasing,” Spears remarked. “As an outsider, you take for granted all that schools have to do to be prepared for a disaster.”

Spears added that the presentations by Kroeger and her CSSS colleagues opened his eyes about the processes needed to protect schools from intruders. He also enjoyed getting to meet vendors who use Choice Partners cooperative contracts.

“I talked to all of them,” Spears said. “I’m going to be working on a synopsis of the vendors that there were and present it to the city.”

One of the vendors present was Gary Shoemake, part of the disaster recovery team at ServPro, which also has an awarded contract for Disaster Mitigation available through HCDE's purchasing cooperative, Choice Partners. Spears said talking to Shoemake was “very interesting,” and that he would consider working with ServPro in the future.

“Since ServPro is part of the Choice Partners co-op, we can use them without going through the bid process again,” he added.

Choice Partners purchasing cooperative offers many contracts that help purchasing officials prepare for and recover from a disaster. For general disaster mitigation, recovery and restoration, Choice Partners has legal, competitively bid contracts needed to prepare facilities for a crisis, recover facilities during a crisis and restore facilities after a crisis.

    · Disaster Mitigation

    · HVAC                                                     Choice Partners awarded contract holder

    · IDIQ Construction and Trades     

    · Industrial Equipment  

    · Janitorial Supplies 

    · Roofing – Building Envelope, Weatherproofing Services 

    · Blue Tarps

    · Tree Trimming

    · Waste removal


The Center for Safe and Secure Schools at Harris County Department of Education provides a Web-based Emergency Operation Planning solution, which meets state mandates and can be customized to address individual campus needs, including

  • Facility Safety and Security Audits that meet Texas Education Code Requirements and
  • All Hazard Emergency Operation Planning, using a web-based platform Emergency Response Information Portal (ERIP), which enables the reviewing and updating of current plans to meet NIMS standards.  In addition, districts have the option to add the capability of giving first responders access to cameras, floor plans and site mapping information.


Once a plan is in place, training and practice are critical steps to effectively carry it out. The Center offers:

  • NIMs training, tabletop exercises and certification opportunities - U.S. Department of Education and Department of Homeland Security National Incident Management
  • Threat Assessment Training
  • Intruderology (Active Shooter)

For more information, call on HCDE’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools at 713-696-2127 for a professional, comprehensive and effective emergency response planning service.

                     Harris County Department of Education logo          HCDE Center for Safe and Secure Schools

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Summertime may be busiest for maintenance

Posted on June 12, 2015

“Are you off in the summer?” When someone asks that question, you know they have never worked for a school district.  Between graduation and convocation is when construction, maintenance and custodial staff power through their list of projects that have been waiting in the wings. It is when the purchasing and business offices wind down from one year and gear up for the next. There is no need for frustration for these annual headaches: Resources are available.

Annual Maintenance 
Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in the Houston area planned ahead several months and reserved a specialized Teupen lift, known for saving manpower and time. Carey Ramsey, CFISD facilities supervisor, will use it for several weeks this summer to replace lights above the seats in the high school auditoriums. The lift will navigate between aisles and self-level, so staff will only have to set it up in four places to reach the lights above the auditorium seats.

“It looks really neat,” said Ramsey. “We’ll remove just a few seats for the outriggers, but it will be a lot less work than building a lift, moving it and manhandling it down the steps.”

He hopes to get the lights replaced faster and more economically than the single-man lift, which takes three men to put together and move around.

“We haven’t used it yet, but are hoping it will work,” said Ramsey. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed!”

He is renting the lift from United Rentals, using their government-awarded Choice Partners purchasing cooperative contract.

“The time they really need us are odd or are emergencies,” said Brad Laws, senior manager, state and local sales, United Rentals Government Solutions. “That’s where United Rentals really fits.”

Gabriela Santana, government sales specialist, United Rentals, noted that people do take that seriously, as she has been called at 1 a.m. when a high school had no power. She was able to get a generator to the site in time for school to open later that morning.

“I told them they could call me any time and they believed it,” said Santana with a smile.

The Choice Partners contract also includes rental of unique equipment, purchase of equipment, and on-line capability to track rentals and rental history.

“There is value in rental, and that’s where we thrive,” said Laws. “That’s our specialty.” 

Purchase used equipment
Cory Conner, public works director from Sweet Grass County, Mont., believes the best value was not in renting, but in purchasing used equipment using the United Rentals cooperative purchasing contract with Choice Partners.  They purchased a used loader using the contract and “saved about $140,000,” according to Conner.

“It was a very positive experience,” said Connor. “United Rentals really bent over backwards to make sure we got what we wanted.”

“It saved us a lot of money,” said Conner. “[It] is a really nice, well kept up machine. One thing about getting equipment from United Rentals, you know it’s been taken care of,” Conner said. “It’s been working great!”United Rentals logo

“It was really nice to be able to work with United Rentals and Choice Partners; we were able to make everybody feel comfortable.”

Special Events
But it is not only in the summertime that specialized equipment is needed. The city of Grand Prairie in the Dallas / Fort Worth area rents boom and scissor lifts from United Rentals in the fall for their Prairie Lights Christmas Park, which showcases four million lights in two miles of large custom displays in Lynn Creek Park.  More than 190,000 visitors visit during

Prairie Lights Christmas Park in Grand Prairie

the 40-day event to experience Christmas lights, food, carnival rides, a laser show, Santa and Santa’s gift shop.

“The event is absolutely wonderful,” said Beverly Grogan, Grand Prairie’s community events coordinator. “United Rentals has been a very good partner through the years. They are good and reliable and if we have any problems they get right on it.”

With 880 locations in the U.S. and Canada, there are many United Rental locations to serve Choice Partners members nationwide.  

• general equipment;

• power and HVAC;

• pumps and fluid handling;

• trench safety and shoring;

• tools (air, power and hand); and

• supplies.

For more information, go to https://www.choicepartners.org/vendors/united-rentals-2 or call 877-874-4468.


Choice Partners logo             WhatIsHCDE.org

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Prepare for disaster

Posted on June 5, 2015

National news recently focused on Texas, as homes and cars were washed away in the deluge of rain and flooding in May. Although the rain was needed to help ease the drought conditions across the state, it left a path of destruction in at least seven counties. These devastating storms were before hurricane season began June 1.

Don’t get caught unprepared to deal with the unexpected. Develop a plan specifying the steps to take to prepare for disaster, to mitigate the damage, recover facilities and services, and then restore to normal operations as efficiently as possible. There are many online resources and in the Gulf-coast area, one can find hurricane preparedness/disaster recovery workshops that provide a plan outline and assist in identifying critical areas of focus. Choice Partners cooperative is hosting disaster recovery workshops in Houston and east Texas in July with best practices on dealing with disasters.

Then implement the preparedness steps outlined in the plan. This should include
     a. Reaching out to local and federal emergency management authorities to establish a working
         relationship for collaboration and coordination during an emergency;
HCDE Center for Safe and Secure Schools logo
     b. Executing interlocal contracts for
         · mutual aid and cooperation with neighboring districts

         · purchasing with a governmental entity such as Choice Partners
           national cooperative, to ensure that when a disaster hits, you have
           immediate access to the legal contracts you need.

     c. Test the plan and train staff

     d. Evaluate and revise

Now when disaster hits, your previous planning saves you. You have established the steps you will take, connected with emergency management authorities, signed interlocal contracts and practiced what to do when disaster hits. You can immediately swing into action to mitigate the damage and being to recover facilities and services using government cooperative purchasing contracts that are already competitively and legally bid.

For general disaster mitigation, recovery and restoration, Choice Partners has the legal, competitively bid contracts needed.

    · Disaster Recovery and Restoration 

    · HVAC 

    · IDIQ Construction and Trades     

    · Industrial Equipment  

    · Equipment purchase 

    · Janitorial Supplies  

    · Roofing – Building Envelope, Weatherproofing Services  

    · Blue Tarps 

    · Tree Trimming 

    · Waste remova

When hail, high winds, rain and tornados storm through members look to Choice Partners cooperative for mitigation, recovery and restoration.

If your school district is not a member, go to www.choicepartners.org/membership to download the interlocal agreement for your governing board agenda. Once approved, send to HCDE Choice Partners so you can quickly access the contracts you need to recover from a disaster.

Harris County Department of Education                                      HCDE Choice Partners national cooperative

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Commodity Processing: What's for Lunch?

Posted on May 29, 2015

Millions of lunches are served to students every day, thanks in part to Choice Partners cooperative. In Harris County schools alone, more than 85 million lunches are served annually that include food processed by Choice Partners contract holders and delivered from schedules coordinated by Choice Partners staff under guidance from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA).

With more than 40 food manufacturers holding an HCDE-awarded commodities contract, Choice Partners cooperative offers many popular menu items, all produced according to the USDA nutrition guidelines. School districts choose the manufacturer and the type of unprocessed donated food commodity to be processed into healthy menu items that are then served in their schools. Truck loads of bulk product (e.g.  Chicken, pork, beef, fruits, vegetables and staples) are shipped to a manufacturer that follows USDA guidelines to process the commodity into nutritious prepared foods. These are delivered to a warehouse and then stored and loaded into trucks to be delivered to the school districts.

Choice Partners coordinates these truckloads to be processed, which gets the food from the plant to the tray.

While the majority of commodity contract users are in the greater Houston region, Choice Partners has member use from the valley, Dallas-Fort Worth and other regions. There are a number of regional food cooperatives in Texas, so when Choice Partners members are not able to build full truckloads (which is a requirement), Choice Partners and these other food cooperatives collaborate with the help of TDA to build a full truckload to be further processed.

The food commodity processing program offered by Choice Partners increases variety for students, while stretching school district food dollars.

In addition to the commodity processing program, Choice Partners offers contracts for healthy school foods and products, including

·         Bread Products

·         Chemical Products and Services

·         Commodity Processing

·         Dairy Products

·         Food Equipment and Small Wares

·         Food Service Management

·         Food Service Supplies

·         Fresh Produce

·         Frozen Beverages

·         Groceries

·         Ice Cream

·         Site Based Pizza Program

Contracts were recently renewed for many of these items and are effective Aug. 1, 2015.

For information on how to join, please Become A Member. There is no fee to join and members are not required to purchase specific amounts from these food contracts.

For more information, visit https://www.choicepartners.org/food or contact Trisha Jensen at Trisha@ChoicePartners.org.

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