School districts today are under increased scrutiny with intense pressure to do more with less and spend every dollar wisely. Fortunately, technology has advanced and access to the cloud is making it possible for schools to take advantage of new solutions that can save significant time while reducing costs.
When Ron Gatlin became the Executive Director of Procurement and School Resources at the El Paso Independent School District (ISD), his goal was to make the procurement process more user-friendly and efficient by adopting new technology solutions.
El Paso ISD is the 13th largest school district in Texas with 85 campuses and 54,000 students. The district’s schools purchase hundreds of items a month and require orders to be turned around quickly. Gatlin knew a cloud-based platform could help simplify and control the spend and expedite shopping time, while still complying with Education Department General Administrative Regulations (EDGAR) and other state purchasing requirements.
Gatlin and Assistant Purchasing Director of Procurement and School Resources, Leticia Rivera, took the lead in innovating the outdated procurement process to provide staff with a more streamlined and efficient experience. The team set out to find a solution that would be easy to implement and that would include punchout capabilities, multiple catalogs for EDGAR compliance and would offer a one-stop shop to simplify the shopping experience.
Gatlin and Rivera started by implementing an electronic bidding system along with K-12 enterprise resource planning (ERP) software from TEAMS by Frontline for organizational management. To further extend this ERP system, they integrated it with EqualLevel’s Procure-to-Pay (P2P) solution which allows school districts to quickly deploy a flexible e-procurement marketplace that ensures compliance and punchout capabilities. With the help of EqualLevel, the duo created their own procure-to-pay marketplace which offers a single, seamless platform to facilitate all processes associated with the shop-order-pay transaction.
“Our staff can now go in and shop for what they want, push a button and it automatically turns into a requisition. They no longer have to type in the description, specs, or pricing and can be ensured that all of those details are accurate and compliant,” said Gatlin. “This eliminates several steps and immensely speeds up the process.”
To introduce the new e-procurement marketplace to the district, Rivera started with a small pilot group of campus staff and then slowly rolled out the platform to other campuses. All El Paso ISD staff and teachers are now able to shop from approved contracts and transfer their cart to campus staff who can log into the purchasing system and approve and complete their transactions. This new system has the added benefit of helping to speed up the process for accounts payable with fewer purchase order changes and invoice reconciliation since pricing is more accurate and purchase orders match what is in the system.
“The campus staff love it. They can go into the marketplace and shop for whatever they want in the online store and know that they are getting the best savings on products that are EDGAR compliant,” said Rivera. “We went from horse and buggy to the Starship Enterprise.”
El Paso ISD utilizes national purchasing cooperatives as well as direct bid vendors to ensure the options in their marketplace meet their legal requirements. By eliminating any maverick spending and ensuring that the staff is only working with approved contracts, the district can demonstrate that they are being fiscally responsible with the public funding they receive.
One of Rivera’s goals for the marketplace was to have the ability to identify where district dollars could be spent locally. “Keeping the money local when possible is important for us and helps support small businesses in our community.” EqualLevel’s marketplace was able to integrate more local suppliers, enabling EL Paso ISD to support the community in which they work and live. All of the products are cataloged in the system so staff can choose from a variety of options and suppliers. El Paso ISD currently has 31 vendors in its marketplace and is looking to expand it with more local suppliers.
The El Paso ISD has also integrated the EqualLevel Savings Advisor (ELSA) which is powered by artificial intelligence to automatically optimize spending and comparison shop punchout items to identify the best savings. In the first six months that ELSA was in use, the district saved $44,000. “By implementing the marketplace and ELSA, we have saved enough money to pay for the technology and put additional dollars back into the classroom,” said Rivera.
Three years ago, El Paso ISD was one of the first school districts in Texas to implement an e-procurement marketplace but now many other school districts in the state are following suit. Also, because the district already had the marketplace integrated before the COVID pandemic, when the need arose to work remotely, staff were able to continue their operations and easily make the transition without interruption to the procurement process.
According to Gatlin, an intangible benefit of the marketplace has been the unexpected morale boost experienced by staff and teachers. “Before I joined, the purchasing department was viewed as slowing down the process and holding things up, and I was determined to turn that around. Customer service is a top priority for me and our job is to serve the campuses efficiently and expeditiously. Now campus staff is happy to have a more streamlined and efficient procurement process in place.”
School districts across Texas and the U.S. are looking for ways to improve their efficiency while still staying within strict purchasing guidelines. El Paso ISD has found a way to impact its complete purchasing process and improve support to its campuses and classrooms while also being budget conscious and taking great care with its funding. Digitizing the procure-to-pay process has put them at the forefront of public procurement and continues to deliver efficiency and effective management of their community’s requirements.
This article was first published by the Texas Association of School Business Officials (TASBO).