New cooperative tries to save school districts money, share ideas

More than half of the public school districts in the state have joined a cost-savings and networking initiative called the District Cooperative of Louisiana launched by the Vermilion Parish School System.

The cooperative began a few months ago as a way to leverage resources and offer school districts a forum for collaboration, Vermilion Parish Schools Superintendent Jerome Puyau said. The initial membership goal was at least 16 districts, but the idea has attracted at least 43 districts. More districts are expected to join before the new school year in August, Puyau said. The state has 71 public school districts.

The cooperative’s popularity is due in part to district leaders recognizing the need for collaboration, Puyau said.

“Districts trust districts,” he said. “We want to work together to do what’s best for our students in our specific districts and make teachers successful — not only in our districts — but across the state. We have like interests and like philosophies and we want to provide our students the best at a price that we can afford.”

He said the cooperative has been able to arrange discounts at 10 percent on purchases, or in some cases higher for instructional software. The discounts aren’t dependent upon a bulk purchase from the entire cooperative membership. Rather, a set discount is negotiated and made available to all its members — regardless of the quantity.

“We’re the negotiators. We provide the savings,” Puyau said. “We message out to members. We negotiated this cost. Look at this company if you want to have these same services.”

For smaller school districts, the cooperative increases buying power.

“We’re fighting for leverage over buying things. Those larger school districts get better breaks for items,” Baker Schools Superintendent Ulysses Joseph said. Baker schools enroll about 1,750 students.

While the cooperative works out discounts for its members, it’s efforts aren’t solely financially driven, Puyau said.

The cooperative members also are pooling the expertise of their employees to prepare for the major statewide changes to the curriculum known as the Common Core State Standards, standardized benchmarks for what students should know. The standards have been adopted in 45 states. A full implementation of the new standards is planned for Louisiana classrooms in the upcoming school year.

The cooperative has partnered with LSU’s Cain Center for Scientific, Technological, Engineering and Mathematical Literacy to provide Common Core training to interested member districts.

Puyau said member districts are also working together to create math and English language arts benchmarks and post-assessments aligned with the Common Core for its members to use.

The available professional development and networking opportunities with other cooperative members is as attractive as the potential savings, said W.L. “Trey” Folse III, superintendent of St. Tammany Parish schools — a district that enrolls about 39,000 students.

“It’s an opportunity to network with school systems and share ideas, beliefs and best practices,” Folse said. “That’s what we’re hoping to get out of it.”

Folse said the district is consulting with other member districts who have virtual school programs as it considers offering its students the same option.

“Everybody’s challenges are basically the same,” he said. “All of us have common issues that we deal with and it’s good to get together with others and hear what they’re trying.”

Fees to join the district range from $1,000 to $2,000 based on the district’s size, Puyau said. The membership fees go toward paying the staff member who oversees the cooperative, travel expenses to visit other districts, and the development and management of a cooperative website.

“We’ll have a digital database of exemplars to show the best of the best of what our teachers are doing,” he said. “We’ll provide these digital places where teachers can upload their exemplars and other teachers can pull down and use it in the classroom.”