Most administrators would agree that they would rather see money go directly toward student education than toward furniture purchases. And most would agree that they do their best to make sure this happens.

Even so, there are times when money simply must be spent on furniture, whether for replacing worn desks and chairs or for outfitting new facilities. When this happens, it's important for teachers to feel that the money has been well spent and the furniture both evenly distributed and distributed where it's most needed. The process needs to feel equitable and fair.

With six high schools, six middle schools and 35 elementary schools serving close to 30,000 students, administrators in Spokane Public Schools, in Washington, know what a challenge it can be to equitably distribute furniture throughout schools. Kathy Ely, Spokane's director of Purchasing Services, shares her district's secrets for ensuring everyone's satisfaction.

SPM: Share a little bit about your district's furniture history.

ELY: In the late 1970s, early 1980s, my predecessor re-outfitted the entire district with new student and teacher furniture. At the time I came into purchasing, the district was in a growth mode; we'd buy new furniture for each new classroom added as we accommodated greater numbers of students each year. There was a standard classroom furniture and equipment list that correlated with what every other classroom had been furnished with during the districtwide upgrade.

Now, for the last five years or so, we've been in a budget-cutting mode because of a continual student decline; projections have this continuing for another three or four years before it levels off.

And yet, we're still using all our space because we have so many more alternative programs. We have close to the same expenses but with less revenue. This creates the challenge of having surplus regular classroom furniture needing to be stored but little space to store it.

The hard plastic student furniture that was purchased in the '70s and '80s is durable and will last for a long, long time. Thus, there seems little reason to sell off the surplus or replace existing with new.

SPM: How have your furniture needs changed through the years?

ELY: We found that we have a shortage of 16-in. and 18-in. chairs in the elementary schools because, through the years, our students have grown bigger for their age, thus needing larger-sized student furniture.

Also, tables are becoming more desirable than individual student desks for the primary grades, since they better accommodate the varied and collaborative teaching methods being implemented by our District’s Teaching & Learning division.

Still, when we build new schools or renovate older schools, for the most part, we reuse the existing furniture — except staff chairs or furniture in the rooms that are most often seen and used by the public, like entranceways, the public office, multipurpose rooms and community-use rooms. We purchase new furniture for these areas. But the majority of student and staff furniture is reused with some refurbishing work completed to mitigate the effects of everyday wear and tear.

Our standard for staff furniture is Steelcase. We often refurbish it, and it looks very good. Sometimes we get the student desks refurbished as well. It's an economical way of sprucing up a school without spending precious dollars that we just simply don't have right now.

SPM: How do you make sure every school has what it needs?

ELY: Before any furniture is purchased, the first thing we do is look in the surplus warehouse to see what's available; if it is not available centrally, we check with the schools to see if they are storing what is needed for the new classroom or program; if it is not found either place, we use central dollars to buy the furniture needed.

We have a lot of grant programs. These programs often have special furniture needs. Sometimes, they have money for furniture. First, we'll see if we can meet their needs from surplus. If we can't, then oftentimes purchases are funded out of their grant budget or come out of the central budget possibly as part of matching grant dollars.

If someone wants something that is different from the standard — that is different than the standard furniture offered a classroom, and it would enhance a program — they inquire as to what we have in surplus. If what we have in surplus is not saved for a specific purpose, we circulate it because we want to support what they are doing. If we don’t have it, they may choose to purchase out of their site budget, which also is very modest these days.

Bottom line — if a school needs any furniture that is standard for a classroom and doesn’t have all that is needed, we see that it is received one way or another.

SPM: When buying new furniture, how do you ensure it's fairly distributed?

ELY: We are just in the process of replacing very, very old cafeteria tables. Again, we have a standard. We did a lot of demonstrations with vendors to pick the best tables. We're going to systematically replace them starting with the schools whose tables are in the worst condition. Even when we do things in phases, it's based on the condition of the existing furniture.

Most furniture purchased these days that is not a specific replacement, such as the cafeteria table example, is for a specific bond-funded new or renovated school project. These projects are determined in a 25-year district capital improvement plan with the help of staff and public feedback. The plan is updated every five to six years using the same process of public and staff meetings to receive feedback on the proposed priorities. This way everyone has a chance to assist in the decision-making process and to better understand the rationale involved in the selections.

SPM: How do you save money when making furniture purchases?

ELY: We've gotten into the habit of purchasing used Steelcase from two vendor outlets, which has really been a good financial decision because we get it at about a third or less of the cost of the same product purchased new. We put it aside for future needs that we know will come with short notice. Again, it has really helped us extend our levy dollars. We never get enough money for everything we want to do so, if we can be economical with furniture, we can spend more on personnel in the schools, which is much more directly related to student learning.

SPM: Does the used furniture you purchase come with a warranty?

ELY: No. But what we purchase used are the Steelcase desks and file cabinets, which really don't need warranties because they are pretty basic and hold up extremely well. We inspect it first and have never had any problem along this line.

Also, we have a good relationship with the used Steelcase dealers. They know what our standards are and that we don't want anything that's not in good shape. For example, if a business closes down or moves and has an office full of Steelcase furniture, we may get a call to ask us, "Do you want some or all of it?"

SPM: What else do you do to save money on furniture?

ELY: Furniture that is going out of our system — like the smaller student chairs that are not in demand any more and items that are not in such good shape — is sent to a contracted auctioneer. We deliver directly from the sending district site to the auctioneer’s site so that we do not have to provide storage space in the interim.

SPM: What common furniture problems do you encounter?

ELY: Probably the biggest challenge is to get furniture moved in a timely manner. We only have a staff of four for the entire district that not only pick up and deliver furniture, but are assigned many other duties such as digging ditches, plowing snow off playgrounds and tasks that involve heavy equipment. Sometimes property transfer requests have to wait weeks to happen because of the transport scheduling. We have a furniture and equipment buyer in purchasing who receives property requests, and she works closely with the division that schedules furniture transport. She tries to squeeze in the more urgent requests as she can on behalf of the schools submitting the request. However, with the ever-changing makeup of a district this large, we know there will never be a shortage of property transfer requests and that we could have double or triple the crew and they would never be caught up. So we just do the best we can to accommodate the requests as they come in.

SPM: What tips do you have for other school districts who are looking to make sure their furniture is distributed equitably?

ELY: I think it's important to have good communication in place and a high level of trust between the school sites and those who centrally purchase or distribute furniture. Teachers in need of furniture must know who to call, and administrators must work hard to not disappoint them in fulfilling the school needs.

Finally, furniture and equipment is a good place where costs can be kept reasonable if you buy good furniture in the first place and have a good system for recirculating it within the district, even when rebuilding or renovating a school.

Fortunately, our district staff is acclimated to this philosophy. I've never run into anyone who didn’t understand why we would recirculate used furniture once the reasons for this were explained.