Amazon Joins With Purchasing Group to Give Schools Access to Online Marketplace

Managing Editor

A major national cooperative purchasing program has arranged a deal that will allow districts around the country to shop for supplies through Amazon Business’ online marketplace, picking and choosing from multiple offers made by different sellers.

Districts, schools, and other education agencies will be able to make the purchases via Amazon through the U.S. Communities cooperative, in an arrangement that backers of the project say will help K-12 systems avoid protracted public bidding processes.

U.S. Communities is a national cooperative purchasing program that provides procurement services and resources to state and local governments, nonprofits and other organizations. School districts can use the cooperative to piggyback on contracts arranged by lead public agencies—such as other districts—while staying within the parameters of the law, including the standard requirement that deals be competitively bid.

In the case of Amazon Business, the lead agency is the Prince William County school system, a district of about 87,000 students in suburban Washington, D.C., which awarded a contract last month to the online retailer after issuing an RFP.

That means other districts, schools, and other public education entities will be able to buy goods through Amazon Business to latch onto Prince William County’s deal, shopping for the best deal through the online forum.

There is no cost for districts to climb on board the Prince William County deal, other than what they eventually spend to buy through Amazon Business. They simply have to register through U.S. Communities to participate.

The contract with Prince William County schools gives other districts and schools access to 10 categories of mostly physical goods, from clothing to scientific and lab equipment to books. While the deal is not focused on technology, districts also can buy certain types of ed-tech through the procurement, such as electronics and digital books, as well as TV and audio-related equipment, according to the RFP.

Toeing the Legal Line

Most school districts and other public agencies have to follow strict procurement guidelines, which typically spell out that contracts must be competitively bid.

To date, those requirements might have restricted K-12 districts’ ability to use Amazon’s site for big purchases, said Daniel Smith, the general manager of education for Amazon Business. Denied that option, most of them instead would have put forward their own RFPs, a process that may take as long as 6-8 months, Smith said.

“It’s about convenience, and it’s about compliance,” Smith said of the new arrangement with U.S. Communities, saying  it will allow his organization and K-12 schools “to provide more value, and we can all move more quickly.”

The structure of the deal will put most districts on a safe legal footing to buy through Amazon Business, said Chris Robb, the general manager for U.S. Communities. Because districts will be latching onto a contract that is competitively bid—Prince William’s contract—school officials, depending on the state or local laws and regulations that govern their buying, will most likely be fulfilling their legal obligations on that front, he said.

The arrangement is U.S. Communities’ first contract for an online marketplace, Robb said, though the organization has a number of contracts that involve reselling with retailers, such as Home Depot.

In the past, districts have said they would “love to do business through Amazon but there wasn’t a contract vehicle to do it,” Robb said. “We think this is a huge opportunity for districts.”

U.S. Communities currently has about 60,000 registered participants, and K-12 education makes up the biggest pool of users, he said.

Prince William County schools officials, responding to questions about the contract via e-mail, said they were familiar with the U.S. Communities process already, because it has a place on the organization’s advisory board and has served as the lead agency for educational purchases through the purchasing group in the past. District officials said their system will receive a “very small” monetary benefit from serving in that role for the deal with Amazon Business.

“The negotiation of volume purchasing agreements benefits all concerned,” Prince William County district officials said. “We were happy to use our experience to help an effort that gives other public agencies the same benefits through a competitively solicited contract.”

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