The Textbook Purchasing Gauntlet
Are you surprised that textbooks are a difficult purchase involving significant hurdles? In Michigan K-12 public education, competitive Invitations to Bid (ITB) are required by law whenever the contract for construction, renovation, repair, or remodeling; or the purchase of supplies, materials or equipment exceeds $23,417 (2017 minimum threshold amount). This threshold amount may increase annually based on adjustments in the Consumer Price Index.
Textbooks are considered materials and need to be competitively bid whenever the purchase exceeds the threshold amount. Sounds simple, right? The ITB is a straightforward process, requiring unit prices for specific quantities to identified school buildings. Each item is individually listed; whether it is a hard cover textbook, soft cover consumable, or software subscription. There are even more opportunities for bidders by providing pricing on both used and new condition textbooks. Boilerplate language includes, among other things, the district’s exhaustive reservation of rights.
Pilot Program Hurdle
This simple purchase becomes complicated. The first hurdle occurs when curriculum classroom leaders evaluate the textbook in a pilot program offered by the publisher. This program is a free test to evaluate a new program in the classroom from November – March. Curriculum leaders then choose whether or not to approve the program. Sounds great, right? Except…the publisher may require brand-new condition on all returned materials, and charge the district for all shipping charges.
The second hurdle occurs when the publishing company convinces the Educational Services Department that they are sole source and the department simply needs to send them a purchase order for the entire cost. Sometimes the publisher ties in the free pilot program to a requirement that the district must exclusively purchase from them for a number of years.
The Purchasing Department becomes aware of this procurement after the department has typed a purchase order that well exceeds the bid threshold amount. Note that the State of Michigan does not allow sole source as an exception from the competitive bid requirement. The Purchasing Department is seemingly arbitrarily delaying the purchase of materials that are needed to help educate students. Since the publisher told the department that these materials can only be purchased from them, why is the Purchasing Department holding the order?
After many conversations, the ITB is quickly issued and bids are publicly received from numerous companies. Remember the publisher said that they are sole source for this material. Low bid is recommended for every item, with the publisher commonly awarded the software subscriptions, and resellers awarded the remaining materials. The Board approves the recommendation, purchase orders are sent, products are delivered, invoices are paid, state law has been followed and the district saved 20-50 percent in the process. We have overcome the hurdles!
Deactivate Software Subscription Hurdle
The final significant hurdle occurs, however, when the publisher deactivates our paid software subscriptions at the start of the school year. The publisher’s rationale being that the district violated the pilot agreement to purchase all materials from them for many years, and that they will only reactivate the subscriptions when we purchase all the hard copy materials from them. This deactivation significantly affects both teachers and students since these subscriptions include assessment, review and testing tools that go beyond the standard textbook.
The Purchasing Department now learns about the obscure pilot material agreement that a teacher may have unknowingly agreed to without authority nine months ago. The district never receives a copy of the signed pilot agreement.
The Purchasing Department reminds the publisher that they signed and submitted ITB pricing on these items without clarifications nor exceptions, and without referencing any prior agreement. Furthermore, the publisher did not protest the bid award nor question the purchase order. The publisher sent itemized invoices that corresponded to their bid submission, and deposited the district’s payment. Lastly, the publisher is reminded that tie agreements are illegal, and the district will not be party to any such request.
The software subscriptions are reactivated, solving the last hurdle for this procurement…until the department surprises me with a new textbook program.
Laura Harrington, CPPO, CPPB, is Purchasing & Risk Management Supervisor at Chippewa Valley Schools in Clinton Township, MI, firstname.lastname@example.org