Keying in on Bargains

In the early ’80s, when personal computers were beginning to be considered as tools for students in the classroom, the Pennsylvania Department of Education had the foresight to realize that they would save money by purchasing microcomputers in bulk. They started a pilot program called the Pennsylvania Education Purchasing Program for Microcomputers (PEPPM). Today, there are nearly 250 product lines in the PEPPM catalog, representing hundreds of thousands of technology-related products. And, the service not only benefits schools and libraries in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but extends to five other states as well.

Time (and Red Tape) Costs Money

Since its inception, more than $1.4 billion in purchases have been made in Pennsylvania alone through PEPPM, creating savings of $336 million. “But the cost savings is only part of the benefit,” says Chris Kerwin, deputy executive director of the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit (CSIU), the regional educational service agency in central Pennsylvania that administers the program. “There are two ways a school saves money -- purchase price and the elimination of an immense amount of administration. The bid process is very costly. We perform the process of E-Rate qualification, and our schools know that the bids are in compliance with state bidding laws. By having approved bids available to a school we help eliminate considerable personnel cost, not to mention the costs of advertising for the bids,” he explains.

Kerwin says another, equally important advantage of this process is that the amount of time from the decision to buy to the receipt and use date has collapsed considerably. “Weeks are saved because the bid is already there. The best part of the story is that the technology gets into students’ hands faster,” he says. “There are many cases where schools have gone to spec and bid, only to find that the product is no longer available or outdated by the time the bid process is complete.”

Reputation Is Everything

According to Kerwin, the success of PEPPM owes a lot to its past performance: “We have established a track record with the schools. They have learned that they can rely on products being available through us over the Internet. A teacher working on a grant can go to our site and look up prices any time of the day, allowing him or her to have accurate information at his or her fingertips.”

There are other statewide and cross-state purchasing programs, says Kerwin, but what distinguishes PEPPM is the fact that they require vendors to keep their listings and prices current, and then PEPPM updates that information, keeping it available to the schools via the Internet.

This year, in a continuing effort to serve the schools better, PEPPM, working with Epylon, added electronic commerce, allowing schools to make purchases online. That business agreement also made it possible for PEPPM to expand, offering its services to government and education procurement officials in California, Colorado, Texas, Illinois and Michigan.

A Challenging Task

Kerwin says that nearly 20 years’ experience has allowed PEPPM to develop a user-friendly and efficient system, but there are still challenges: “One of the most important challenges for PEPPM is to stay current with the rapidly changing prices in the technology market. To be effective, we have to keep the schools current on those prices.”

Another challenge, Kerwin notes, is the constantly changing marketplace of technology companies (see July SP&M, page 43). “Over the years vendors have come and gone, and it has always been a challenge to make sure that contracts and services were honored. During the past two years, with all of the mergers and acquisitions, that has been especially challenging,” he says.

Kerwin says that another challenging part of the task involves serving the vendors. While PEPPM exists to make sure that the schools’ collective interests are protected through quality specs and vendors, he explains, a large number of the bids are hotly contested because of volume, so the staff is very diligent about keeping the vendors aware of what is going on in the process, and making sure the vendors know the reasons the bids were awarded to the winners.

What Makes It Tick?

The Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit 16 (CSIU), under a contract with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, administers PEPPM. CSIU seeks bids on selected computers, peripherals, software and related accessories on behalf of the school entities and libraries. Kerwin says that purchasing from the PEPPM Bid List releases the public schools from having to bid those items at a local level, while still complying with state bid requirements. Currently, the arrangement covers 501 Pennsylvania school districts, 94 vocational technical schools, the commonwealth’s 29 intermediate units, the 34 state-approved private schools and public libraries. Kerwin explains that vendors will extend PEPPM pricing to non-public schools at PEPPM's request.

Some of the programs and services available through PEPPM include computer software and services, technology and network planning, desktop software training and online courses, web development services, joint purchasing and other cooperative business programs, public relations, human resources and marketing services, grant writing and curriculum development programs and staff development workshops and courses.

More than 200 bidders, including Apple Computer, Inc.; Dell Computer Corp.; IBM Corp.; Cisco Systems, Inc.; and Gateway, Inc. contract to supply the six states with buying options on everything from PCs and laptops to routers and wiring.

PEPPM was originally constituted under a state grant, says Kerwin: “The idea was to help schools plan for technology, and CSIU held that grant and offered to help run the program. So, from that point on, CSIU has been the manager for the program and provided the services for the schools.” Kerwin says the program still receives “a modest amount of state support,” but that it is mainly supported by surcharges paid by the vendors. For more information, go to .

Jerry Enderle is Editor of School Planning & Management magazine.