Contracts in a Nutshell

I shouldn’t keep being surprised when I run into ill-defined processes for contracts. My experience is that clarity in this area is the exception rather than the rule.

Small districts may have no purchasing department. In such cases the Chief Business Officer (CBO) owns the process directly. In larger districts he or she will have a purchasing supervisor, manager or director. The CBO is still ultimately responsible, however.

First, CBO’s need to understand the law. Start here at the OCDE web site (for California law). Consider engaging an attorney to review your processes. The fundamental thing to know is that the school board authorizes contracts. Authority may be delegated, but the board still must ratify.

I offer the following framework as a starting point.

A school district enters into two basic types of contracts: “they pay us” and “we pay them”.

They pay us

These contracts are most likely associated with the use of facilities. They can range from a private school leasing an entire closed school site on an ongoing basis to a community group using one classroom one time.

Principals and other site personnel must understand that school buildings are not their property and they have no authority to lease them out, barter them for services, or enter into the myriad of creative arrangements that you’ll likely discover in the absence of a defined use of facilities process.. The CBO must develop procedures for use of facilities that are in line with the Civic Center Act (EC 38130-38139). The process and rates to be charged will be board-approved.

Consider using an automated process for civic center use of facilities, such as Civic Permits***.

We pay them

Districts procure goods and services every day. The following types of contracts often have their own process:

  • Purchase orders (including the procurement of items over the bid limit)
  • Public works contracts  
  • Agreements for professional services (boilerplate)
  • Contracts for Special Education services (which don’t necessarily need a separate process but often have one)
  • Individually crafted agreements when boilerplate language is insufficient

Defining and sharing these processes can be a challenge. Start by supporting school sites, where adequate guidance is often lacking.

Rules for Schools

RULE ONE: “They pay us” contracts cannot be initiated at school sites. Someone in the District Office (DO) will be responsible for facilities leases and rentals.

RULE TWO: Purchase Orders and simple professional services contracts can be initiated at sites. All other contracts are referred to the District Office.

RULE THREE: Contracts may only be signed by someone designated by the board. School site personnel are almost never designated.

Contracts Process

The above paper-driven, manual process could (and should) be replaced by an automated process (see*** for an example). If your district feels the price for automation is too high, then you’re going to have to monitor contracts manually, probably using an Excel spreadsheet. The process may be slow and annoying for schools.

You cannot default to having no process at all, so devise one that works for your situation. Know the law and be accountable.

***Note: I am not endorsing any particular software. There are many, so check them out.

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