Group Purchasing a ‘Lifesaver’ for New Charter School RioGAFA
To say that opening new charter school Rio Grande Academy of Fine Arts (RioGAFA) has kept primary co-founders Jordan Franco and Michele Platis busy would be a massive understatement.
Franco is as seasoned as they come in the education field. His résumé spans more than 15 years and includes stints as a teacher, dean of students, assistant principal, vice president of operations, and field director for Public Charter Schools of New Mexico. But, he acknowledges the two-year process to get the state’s first K-12 arts-integration charter school off the ground has been all-consuming.
“It’s been a crazy journey. We’ve been dealing with a whole lot of things at once,” he says.
A never-ending to-do list
Franco and Platis’ to-do list began with foundational items like securing state approval to establish the school in Albuquerque, finding funding, and identifying a facility. With the school’s opening just months away, the list grew to include procuring all the equipment, furniture and supplies needed to welcome students on their first day. For this daunting task, the co-founders, who also serve as co-directors of RioGAFA, looked to two external partners for help, the charter school-focused group purchasing organization BuyQ and the school supplies and equipment vendor Staples, one of BuyQ’s awarded vendors.
Franco calls the two organizations “lifesavers,” not only for the time and money RioGAFA saved by purchasing critical supplies through BuyQ’s pre-negotiated contract with Staples, but also for the headaches the arrangement has spared them. By procuring startup supplies and equipment through BuyQ’s contract, RioGAFA avoided the time-consuming process of running their own bids and requests for proposals (RFPs) while staying compliant with internal and external purchasing regulations. The school also benefited from a higher service level and access to a senior, more experienced Staples account manager thanks to their participation in the BuyQ contract.
“BuyQ and Staples have made the [startup] process so much easier for us,” says Franco. “They understand our vision and truly treat us as a partner, and their experience helping new schools like ours to launch is just so valuable.”
A partnership is born
Aligning with a group purchasing organization (GPO) like BuyQ wasn’t on the co-founders’ initial to-do list for RioGAFA, which opened in fall 2022 with approx. 175 students in kindergarten, first grade and sixth grade and plans to expand to K-12 later. The school primarily serves students from at-risk, low-socioeconomic backgrounds with a learning model that uses the arts — creative writing, dance, drama, media, music and visual — as a vehicle to learn in all content areas.
But, officials at another Albuquerque charter school urged Franco and Platis to consider BuyQ, which has a long track record of delivering results for new and existing charter schools. The co-founders had a call with BuyQ CEO Marco Rafanelli. Rafanelli then introduced them to Julie Martini, a senior account manager at Staples who specializes in serving charter schools.
The working relationship came together soon thereafter, recounts Franco. “Their professionalism and their knowledge of how to go about starting a school won us over and gave us a level of comfort that they would be partners we could trust, and that this would be a good deal for our school.”
From there, with about six months before RioGAFA was to open, Franco and team got busy on the purchasing front. They used the line of credit, discounts and incentives they could access from Staples via the BuyQ contract for furniture, tech infrastructure, facilities supplies (PPE, custodial, office, etc.), printing services and more.
Group purchasing pays off
According to Franco, the benefits of working with a charter school-focused GPO and a vendor like Staples are clear:
- Immediate gratification. After meeting with BuyQ and Staples in March 2022, says Franco, “we were able to start moving immediately” on orders with Staples.
- Free and flexible. RioGAFA didn’t have to pay a fee to use BuyQ. Rather, BuyQ’s awarded vendors pay the group purchasing organization a small percentage of total sales that flow through their contracts. Even better, RioGAFA and charter schools like them are permitted to use the program as little or as much as makes sense for them. That made the choice to use BuyQ’s Staples contract an easy one for Franco – a relief given all the other challenging decisions the school was facing.
- Huge time savings. Franco knew from previous charter school experience just how time-consuming and tedious the procurement process can be, especially for a startup, and particularly for a stand-alone school like RioGAFA. Because BuyQ handles all RFPs and vendor negotiations on behalf of the schools it represents, “everything was taken care of,” he says. “We’ve gotten immeasurable days and hours back into our lives as a result.” That’s time Franco and his team can use for other high-value tasks.
- Purchasing power. By itself, RioGAFA had little leverage to command the kinds of discounts and procurement perks that a larger charter organization could. With the purchasing power that comes with BuyQ’s 4,000+ charter school participants, the school has access to special pricing and incentives that go right to the bottom line.
- A true partner, not just a vendor. “We’re big on relationships,” Franco says, “and the people we work with at BuyQ and Staples really care about understanding our vision and helping us fulfill it. They’ve shown us that the relationship piece is important to them, too.” One example: Martini, who leads the Staples team supporting RioGAFA, personally shepherded the school’s line-of-credit application through the approval process.
- Experience and expertise. Franco says he’s been leaning on Staples’ in-house experts for furniture, classroom and office design, tech infrastructure configuration and other valuable guidance. The BuyQ and Staples teams also have extensive experience launching a new school. “They helped us see options we had not considered and answer questions we hadn’t thought to ask,” Franco says.
- Problem-solving over sales. When the quote for the school’s initial furniture wish list didn’t fit within the school’s budget, he recalls. “instead of saying, ‘No,’ the Staples team said, ‘Let’s figure this out together.’ And we did. They came back with options that were closer to our budget, with a quicker delivery window. That took away a lot of our anxiety.”
- Unexpected perks. With indoor air quality a major concern for schools nowadays, Staples gifted RioGAFA a Fellowes Aeramax air purifier to test, a modest but important gesture to support a startup school on a tight budget.
“Opening a school is stressful,” Franco acknowledges. He and Martini offer the following suggestions to ease that stress and help school officials get through their lengthy to-do list more efficiently:
- Be open-minded to group purchasing. For all the benefits that working with BuyQ and Staples is bringing RioGAFA, it’s “definitely” a route worth considering for new and existing schools alike, according to Franco.
- Build a team of trusted experts and lean on them for support. “You want to have the right team in place — experts in their field, creative thinkers, people who clearly care about your school,” says Franco. “Then rely on them. Let them take stuff off your plate.”
- Be hyper-aware of timeframe. Given today’s supply chain bottlenecks, says Martini, it’s vital to get all preparatory work and ordering done well in advance to accommodate potential delays.
- Ensure all relevant buying influencers have a voice in procurement decisions. Finance, procurement, facilities/operations, IT, HR — they all should have a seat at the table, according to Martini.
- Be responsive. “Prompt response times are really important,” Martini says, whenever a question or issue arises about a potential or pending order.
Rio Grande Academy of Fine Arts’ first school year is now underway. And, a concept that wasn’t even on Franco’s radar a few short months ago has blossomed into an indispensable partnership with BuyQ and Staples. Franco envisions that partnership growing right along with the school he, Platis and their team worked so diligently to launch.
For now, though, it’s back to the to-do list.