The Plano Independent School District (PISD) is among the 20 largest districts in Texas1Texas Largest School Districts https://www.niche.com/k12/search/largest-school-districts/s/texas/. PISD serves a student body of more than 53K, encompasses 72 schools and 20-plus offices and has an annual budget topping $750M2PISD 2019-2020 Official Budget
2020%20AMENDED3.pdf. To put the district’s considerable size into perspective, with over 6000 teachers and staff, PISD has 20 percent more people on payroll than the city’s largest employer, Capital One3Plano Economic Development https://www.planotexas.org/133/Leading-Employers.
By all accounts, PISD is not just a big district, but a big business. Yet, until recently, the district, which is renowned for its interdisciplinary science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) curriculum and emphasis on technical education, managed its $18M annual materials and supplies sourcing almost exclusively via traditional paper-based methods.
The disparity between the state-of-the-art materials, equipment and services they were buying, and the largely outdated tools and processes they were using to source these supplies was evident to PISD’s purchasing services team, led by Purchasing Director John Orr. But the department’s options were limited. Like many public school districts across the country, PISD had been challenged to modernize its purchasing services due to the high cost of most sophisticated digital procurement software, and the complexity of integrating standard business software with the district’s education-specific financial and administrative systems.
PISD’s purchasing services team hoped to bridge the chasm between their manual methods and the emerging digital model by implementing web-based punchout catalogs with some of their larger vendors. However, the district’s first foray into the realm of e-procurement turned out to be less-than ideal.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a disaster, since, in the end, the users were happy with the functionality, but getting there was pretty unpleasant,” said Veronica Couzynse, PISD purchasing coordinator. She explained that it took over six months of back and forth between PISD’s IT folks and the supplier’s team to work out all the conflicts with their punchout technology and the district’s Total Education Administrative Management Solution (TEAMS) financial software. “It was an experience we were not eager to repeat, especially since all that effort only gave us online access to one supplier’s catalog.”
So, Couzynse and Orr continued to search the market for an affordable, full-featured solution that would enable them to not just manage costs with a single vendor but help them optimize their overall spend.
The ideal solution would have a user-friendly punchout interface without the complicated integration with the district’s TEAMS system; access to multiple vendors with a single sign on; complete spend visibility and robust spend analytics; empower users to build own carts, while giving office managers final authority to accept or deny requisitions; improve financial transparency for all stakeholders; and, of course, it needed to be secure.
EqualLevel Marketplace cloud-based e-procurement solution checked all those boxes, and more, Couzynse stated. Not only did the EqualLevel platform ensure shoppers are sourcing from approved contracts and are following the correct compliance steps, but EqualLevel is designed to integrate with financial systems including Munis and Ivisions from Tyler Technologies, Skyward and Frontline Education’s TEAMS.
In addition, EqualLevel’s artificial-intelligence powered Savings Advisor TM (ELSA) technology uses advanced machine learning algorithms and a growing product information database to identify lower-priced alternatives from other vendors in the marketplace that are either exact matches or closely related to the user’s choice. This in-cart optimization enables users to “comparison shop” without having to spend time scrolling through multiple pages of search results.
“That was one of the things that was so attractive to me about the EqualLevel platform,” Couzynse said. “Before EqualLevel, our officer managers would have to manually solicit quotes from suppliers to demonstrate the competitive pricing discipline required by TEA and EDGAR for the use of federal funds. It was an onerous process. Now, ELSA helps us attain those quotes almost automatically. And, since all the activity is captured in the marketplace, we have real-time availability to the reports that detail all our spend activity. It’s a huge game changer for us.”
The EqualLevel Savings Advisor reports shows total spend by month, with fields for replacement savings, maximum savings, missed savings. “It is very transparent. We see how much we saved by accepting suggested replacements and how much more we potentially could have saved.”
Beyond the hard dollar savings, Couzynse noted that the district is enjoying significant improvement in process efficiency. For example, the accounts payable staff no longer spend countless hours reconciling inconsistencies between invoice pricing and the original purchase order. “Invoices for transactions through the marketplace are coming in accurate. That saves our office managers a lot of time and frustration.”
Currently there are 15 different vendors on the Plano district EqualLevel marketplace, with several more in queue to be added in the coming months. The process of adding new vendors is “very easy,” according to Couzynse. EqualLevel’s supplier enablement team works directly with vendors on the XML and API integration. And, for those vendors that do not already have punchout-enabled e-commerce capability, EqualLevel provides a no-charge, punchout storefront with buyer-specific prices, item management and custom landing pages.
While change management is often one of the biggest obstacles to implementing a new process or system in any business setting, Couzynse said that with the EqualLevel platform user training was minimal and adoption has been enthusiastic.
“We provided our office managers, who are responsible for approving the carts and routing through the system, with hands-on training, but since the EqualLevel marketplace e-commerce experience is modeled after typical consumer online shopping, all we needed to do for our teachers was provide them with a simple document outlining the procedures and options and they were ready to go.”
In the first four months since the EqualLevel solution was introduced, Couzynse reported that more 1100 users have signed into the marketplace, and over $500K in orders have already been placed through marketplace vendors. “I think that really speaks to the ease of use of the EqualLevel platform. It really is so intuitive and our users love it.”
Purchasing Director Orr expects that the ease of use and growing variety of products available through the marketplace will lead to a dramatic reduction in off contract spend by staff in local retail stores. He noted that in the past, teachers might go to the neighborhood office supply store to pick up supplies they needed because it was “faster and easier” than dealing with the requisition system. Now, they can just logon to the marketplace, in a few clicks find the materials they need and send it off to the office managers for approval.
“In many cases, they have their goods within a day or two. So, that satisfies their needs, and goes a long way toward helping us better manage our overall spend. It’s not just a win-win for my team and the staff, but for the student experience and the community who entrust us to be diligent stewards of their hard-earned tax dollars,” he concluded.