Did you know?… How to Sell to Iowa Public Schools

Written by Mary Zimmerman
CIRAS PTAP Government Contracting Specialist

Summer is ending, which means parents everywhere are beginning to shop for Back To School. Have you ever considered what may be on the school’s shopping list?

If you want to do business with a particular school district and don’t know anything about the district you are targeting, gather information by searching its website. Browse it to learn details such as size, demographics, academic performance, strategic plan, technology goals, community involvement, board meeting minutes, superintendent’s message(s), etc. Get to know the district philosophy, its strengths and its needs.

Unlike most government agencies, schools do not typically procure through a centralized purchasing office.  The exception is the larger metropolitan district who has dedicated staff to perform this function.  For a bid opportunity within a larger district, locate the purchasing department on the website, then find the applicable bid opportunities, policies and procedures, and purchasing agents. Register your company, reach out to the agent(s), and build a relationship with them.

For the smaller school districts, it may be more challenging to determine how purchases are funneled, But they do have commonalities. While searching district websites, seek out the staff directory and find the administrative/business office or business manager.  Most likely, this is where the purchases are authorized and executed.  Inquire about the district’s purchasing procedures/policies, dollar thresholds, etc., and how you can be included in the process. Depending upon the size and/or complexity of the procurement, some are quick (approved by the superintendent), and others may wait for school board approval.

Regardless of the district, there are different audiences/stakeholders who are the decision-makers for what they need and buy.  Reach out to them, cognizant of the school year cycle including budget, activities, and staff availability. Their time is limited, so use your time wisely.

Following are some potential opportunities to target and foster relationships:

  1. Facilities and Grounds

Typically the facility director has responsibility in multiple areas of expertise, and in the small districts, this is often carried out by a single individual.  His or her responsibilities could include custodial (restroom paper products, cleaning supplies, cleaning equipment); building (maintenance and repair, roof, HVAC, electrical, painting, renovations, building exterior, additions); and grounds (green spaces, parking lots, sidewalks, landscaping, outdoor equipment.)

Find this person the same way you did when searching for the business manager – google the school district.  Another way is through the Iowa Schools and Building & Grounds Association: http://www.isbga.org/ .  This website has a member directory that lists all the participating schools as well as the personnel contact information.  Often when they need something, they have a short lead time to procure/have services rendered.  Sometimes they may just solicit three “apple-to-apple” quotes and award to the lowest bidder.  In a case like this, they already have their “go-to” vendors whom they know are competitive and can perform the work…ensure your company is one of them by learning their needs, providing solutions, and building relationships!

2. Athletics

This could include indoor and outdoor sports and physical education equipment, misc. items for concessions, scoreboards, lights, sound systems, audio-video equipment, fundraising opportunities, sport and cheer uniforms, promotional materials, etc.

Google to find the athletic director, cheer director, head of physical education, etc., in the school district.  Another source for pertinent information is through the Iowa High School Athletic Association: http://www.iahsaa.org/   Once here, click the “Schools” tab, type in the name of the school district under the “Search by School,” and a plethora of information will come up – more than you were seeking (e.g. physical school address, colors, nickname, conference, superintendent, principal(s) AD, coaches, etc.)  Once again – build relationships with the stakeholders!

  1. Building Principal(s)

Opportunities lie with each building principal. Identify current and future needs. Principals’ procurement responsibilities include everything needed to support the staff and student activities for their building, such as: Office/classroom furnishings, equipment, and supplies; lunchroom furnishings/equipment; playground equipment; technology requirements; curriculum needs (e.g. agriculture, scientific, textbook/educational materials, etc.) safety/healthcare supplies; library supplies; etc.

  1. Food Service Director

Food, food service supplies, and equipment. There are often separate contracts for different food items, such as bread and milk.  Be advised that safety is a common issue in this area.

  1. Transportation

Vehicles – including buses, trucks, vans, and cars (both new and used); vehicle repair and maintenance; supplies/accessories for maintenance of vehicles. Convenient and economical outsourced services could be a welcome respite in this area.

  1. Utilities, such as electricity, gasoline, propane (for buildings and vehicles).
  1. Area Education Association

An indirect source for selling to schools.  The AEA is an independent, tax-exempt, nonprofit institution that provides a purchasing program for schools.  Companies competitively bid for contracts held by the AEA.  For more information, go to  http://www.aeapurchasing.org/.  Contracts are awarded through a competitive bid process, and responses are submitted through an electronic bid system called Public Purchase.  If interested, you can sign up here to become a vendor to view and bid on opportunities:

To summarize, do your research up front so as not to waste your stakeholder’s time. The key influencers may not always be who you think they are! Talk to those within the district office staff to find out how decisions are made, who on the district staff will be involved, and how you can best work with them.

Should you need more information, reach out your government contracting specialist, a knowledgeable resource on your government contracting journey!


For more information, contact Mary Zimmerman at maryz@iastate.edu or 515-540-1278.