The potential cost savings are still there to entice administrators, but schools remain cautious about taking purchasing operations online.

The hesitance stems from schools' reluctance to change their systems, legal obstacles regarding bidding and paper trails, and the failure of many companies that promised big savings.

“Two or three years ago, we were being besieged with offers,” says Ken Swink, executive director of the Southwestern Ohio Education Purchasing Council in Dayton. “Dot-com companies sprang up overnight. Three to six months later, they folded up their tents.”

Companies vanished or were swallowed up by other firms. The approach of charging vendors a percentage of sales didn't attract enough business.

“I'm convinced that some of the concepts with vendor-paid fees were not that well thought-out,” says Ron Ricketts, general manager of the King County Directors Association in Kent, Wash., a purchasing cooperative that includes 294 school districts in the state. “The pricing available was higher than what we were obtaining on our own.”

Staff accustomed to processing purchase orders on paper may be resistant to online procurement.

“Part of it is lack of comfort with technology,” says Ricketts. “Educators can be as reluctant as anyone else is to change, especially with regard to computers. And some schools have policies that require hard-copy tracking to assure control.”

Still, those overseeing school purchasing believe that bidding and buying online is the way of the future. Schools can process orders more quickly, have access to more vendors and get better prices because of volume purchasing.

“It will happen,” says Swink, “but certainly not at the pace people were predicting a few years ago.”

Swink says that his purchasing council takes bids online for classroom supplies and food services. Online orders help the council avoid some of the mistakes that may occur on paper.

“We still get handwritten orders for custodial supplies,” says Swink. “Many times, we'll have to call back because something's been written in the margin or we can't read the writing.”

Ricketts says that on an average day, about half of the purchase orders the King County association receives arrive online.

Other opportunities exist for schools to purchase goods online. U.S. Communities is a government purchasing alliance that pools the purchasing power of public agencies, including schools, nationwide. One of its founding sponsors is the Association of School Business Officials International.


NOTABLE 5 TO 8

Percentage of school budgets spent on supplies and equipment.

Source: Association of School Business Officials International

$410.6 BILLION

2000-01 public elementary and secondary school expenditures.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

$10.1 BILLION

Capital outlay spent by public schools for equipment, 2000-01.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

$11.9 BILLION

Estimate of U.S. retail e-commerce sales for the first quarter of 2003.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

1.5

Percentage of U.S. retail sales in first quarter of 2003 that were categorized as e-commerce sales.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau