Smart Moves - Despite the End of The Recession, K-12 Schools Are Still Looking for Ways to Do More With Less and Looking to Distributors for Ideas.
By: Jan Niehaus

Four years after the official end of the recession, the purported recovery has not yet arrived on school premises. Jim Morris, director of environmental and energy services for Virginia Beach City (Va.) Public Schools (VBCPS), explained, “We tend to lag a year or two behind the rest of the economy. When the recession hit, it didn’t affect us right away. When recovery comes…well, we’re still waiting to see an easing. The budgets are still tight. We are always trying to do more with less.” Electrical distributors can help.

In addition to making energy-efficiency products and technologies available at the best possible price with generous terms, electrical distributors can help in numerous, creative ways. Susan Pruchnicki, an architect and interior and lighting designer with St. Louis-based Bond Architects, a design firm that specializes in K-12 work, has several suggestions.

As a principal at Bond, Pruchnicki has firsthand experience with the new product seminars manufacturers bring to their best customers and knows that manufacturers provide product training to their distribution partners, who sometimes invite their best customers. She believes that educators would also benefit from hearing about new products and technologies, if distributors could include them in these classes.

Or maybe distributors could host separate sessions just for educators. A midwestern chapter of the USGBC took this approach when it sought to bring municipalities into the fold. It created a free brown-bag seminar for code officials, inspectors, facilities managers, and related municipal employees. Electrical distributors could partner with manufacturers and nonprofit organizations that have a similar interest in serving K-12 decision makers.

Because of distributors’ close relationships with their customers, Pruchnicki believes that they may be able to reduce the “cushion factor” that contractors sometimes build into their bids. “When we see a new technology and put it on a project, contractors often round up their costs because they anticipate a learning curve or trouble getting parts or some un known difficulty,” she explained.

When Districts Go Out to Bid
Many states, counties, cities, and school districts negotiate contracts with key suppliers for ommodity products. In some communities, schools and districts voluntarily band together in nonprofit associations to collaborate on technology, purchasing, and staff development. Pruchnicki described how one such organization handles procurement: “The organization has a prebid agreement with suppliers and tells them, ‘Because we will all buy a lot of lightbulbs from you, you can give us better pricing,’” she said, adding that the suppliers still have to compete to get on the list.

“In Virginia Beach, we typically work off state contracts,” said Morris. “The question for us is whether the available items are compatible with what we already have. Also, not everything is covered by state contracts. Some of the more innovative products aren’t.”

Apparently, it takes a while for government agencies to validate new technologies and vet suppliers. In the meantime, individual school districts may charge ahead, as did VBCPS with LED lighting and security systems.

“We put LED lighting on about half of our high school stages and as house lighting in two auditoriums over the past four years,” Morris explained. “When we started that work, LEDs weren’t on the state contract. We put our central intrusion security systems out for bid too. Where we can show pay back, whether items are covered under contract or not, we can bid separately.”

Pruchnicki added, “If a project is under a certain dollar amount, it may not have to go out to bid. For example, if there is a room to fit out as a teaching kitchen and the threshold is $10,000, then the school district might be able to go directly to an appliance dealer and negotiate.”

Practical Approaches
Distributors can negotiate contracts with large schools districts—and cities and counties and states, too—similar to their MRO agreements with manufacturers. They can also find out which products are not covered under agency contracts and establish relationships with districts to supply those products.

An increasing number of distributors offer integrated supply services to their large industrial customers. Can they offer inventory management and procurement services to large school districts as well? Once relationships are established, cost-conscious K-12 facilities managers will appreciate getting a heads-up on promotions of frequently used products. Even if their inventory is sufficient at the time, they may opt to stock up while prices are down.

The same budget constraints responsible for the backlog of deferred maintenance problems have limited curricular resources as well. According to Pruchnicki, schools welcome any information electrical distributors can provide on products and their benefits.

For example, when a project incorporates energy-efficient lighting, motion sensors, photo sensors, controlled shades, and natural daylighting, distributors could add significant value by supplying information on the system’s components and operation, the cost of electricity, and recent findings on the impact of natural lighting on illness, absenteeism, and test scores. Teachers in the Parkway School District in St. Louis build lessons around the realtime, online data on the performance of the PV solar arrays on the schools’ 33 buildings. The installation of generators affords opportunities for lessons and projects on climate change, power distribution, the grid, and demand supply concerns.

Some electrical distributors visit local schools to recruit graduates for internships and employment. One teacher in a program for gifted elementary school children said she would welcome industry experts as guest speakers on energy, electricity, power generation, transmission, and renewable energy.

Many distributors have long histories of philanthropic community involvement. For example, NorthEast Electrical Distributors, headquartered in Brockton, Mass., is a poster child for goodwill toward K-12 institutions. Every year since 2009, NorthEast has co-sponsored “Proj ect Green Lights” with WEEI Sports Radio Network, manufacturers, and local electrical contractors. This essay sweepstakes gives one school district a $50,000 lighting renovation: lighting audit, all products, and installation.

In one of Bond’s client K-12 districts, the nutrition college of a nearby university introduced a Seed to Table program, introducing fresh, local produce and a nutrition curriculum. A building contractor supports the same district’s Farm Friend Program, which brings in sheep, rabbits, etc., for a few weeks at a time for hands-on learning about nutrition and animal health and care. Many universities and corporations are eager to lend support to districts’ STEM (science technology engineering math) programs because of the current and anticipated shortage of scientists.

The Learning Curve
When LEED and Energy Star certification first came into vogue, electrical distributors discovered that their familiarity with their own green products and LEED requirements enabled them to suggest alternative products with higher performance values and allowed their contractor customers to generate award winning bids. Later, when tax credits and utility rebates became available to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy, distributors educated themselves on the incentives and started calculating up-front costs, ROI, payback periods, annual savings, and life cycle savings. They might similarly educate themselves on the other sources of revenue available for K-12 facility up grades.

For example, a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security paid for VBCPS’s central intrusion security system. Distributors might also identify and educate themselves on the connections between hot issues in education today (e.g., indoor air quality) and the features of their green products (e.g., no VOC content, halogen-free, etc.).

K-12 schools need all the friends they can get in these austere times. Given all the financial advantages that electric and electronic technologies provide and the curricular gains that follow, conversations with K-12 leaders would go a long way toward establishing rapport and uncovering more ways in which distributors can support education in the communities in which their employees work and live, while building the foundation for ongoing business relationships.

*For more information go to

help desk software