I-Team: Taxpayers on Hook for Pricey School Furniture and Electronics

Hundreds of New York schools are paying more for classroom electronics and furniture than civilian shoppers would pay if they simply bought the identical items online, the I-Team has found. 

The I-Team filed requests under the Freedom of Information Law to obtain catalogs, price lists and discount schedules used by the state's Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, known as BOCES.

School districts expect furniture and electronics to be discounted when they buy through BOCES because the agency pools the buying power of hundreds of schools. But the I-Team found vendors adding significant mark-ups to products found in virtually every classroom.

Consider these examples:

  • A whiteboard anyone could buy online for $740 costs $996 if schools buy it through the Nassau BOCES -- a difference of $256.
  • A security card to charge laptop computers costs $1,560 online for most people, but schools pay about $1,910 when they buy one through Eastern Suffolk BOCES.
  • A Hewlett Packard printer that costs $345 online will cost schools $399 when they buy it through the Ulster County BOCES -- a $54 mark-up.
  • A 12-foot cafeteria table that most shoppers can buy online for $1,623.99 cost schools that purchase it through Nassau BOCES $2,275.99 -- a $652 hike.

Robert Hanna, deputy superintendent of Nassau BOCES, said he is concerned taxpayers are paying higher prices for many classroom products even though the BOCES cooperative purchasing program is designed to control costs.

"There’s some question in my mind, that, in 2015 is there another way to do this,” Hanna said.

Hanna also suggested there are legitimate reasons schools might have to pay more than regular consumers for identical items.

"We could see a Best Buy flier and go buy something that expires on Sunday, but in terms of these bids, they are prepared and offered and then the vendors have agreed to the specs which could say that this price is good for six months or a year," he explained.

The BOCES cooperative purchasing program tries to get good deals for schools by seeking competitive bids for all sorts of products and services. Vendors representing a variety of manufacturers fight for the right to sell those goods and services by submitting price lists, representing their lowest possible discounts on each manufacturer’s line of products.

Laurie Conley, purchasing agent for Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said the board can only use vendors that respond to its bids.

"We don’t have the ability as a municipality to go out to a local Costco and purchase things with cash," Conley said.

Charles Khoury, superintendent of Ulster BOCES, said the expensive school products should prompt administrators to do a better job of seeking deals.

“We should go to the big box stores,” Khoury said. "We probably should be looking at our practices to make sure that it’s not just people who’ve done business with us before, but to make sure we’re getting the best price for our customers.”

Some current and former BOCES vendors have complained there is not enough oversight in the bidding process.

In 2011, Kathy Cole, who owns a company called Gym Door Repairs, lost her right to repair and service gymnasium equipment through the Eastern Suffolk BOCES bid.

Upset that she lost tens of thousands of dollars in business, she filed Freedom of Information requests seeking multiple price lists submitted by the winning vendor, a company called Young Equipment Sales.

Cole discovered one of the price lists submitted by Young had been altered, allowing the company to perform locker painting without having ever competed to offer the lowest price. Long Island Business News Reporter David Winzelberg was first to report the discrepancy.

“They were performing services that they weren’t entitled to perform,” Winzelberg said.

After investigating further, Winzelberg also found he could get cheaper quotes on various school furniture products offered on price lists provided by Young and other vendors if he called the manufacturer directly.

“I would assume, and most people would assume, that schools have a lot of buying power and should be getting the best prices for things because they buy in quantity,” Winzelberg said.

Representatives from Young Equipment Sales had no comment when contacted by the I-Team. Previously the company’s CEO told Winzelberg allegations about the altered price list were a product of sour grapes from a company that lost in the bidding process and was trying to “further its private business interests through use of the media."

A letter provided by Eastern Suffolk BOCES said the agency has cooperated with the New York Attorney General’s office and other investigative agencies looking into Young Equipment Sales. To date, Young has faced no penalty for the altered price list.

The Attorney General’s office had no comment.

Meanwhile, Young Equipment Sales continues to sell furniture and other equipment to area schools. On one of Young’s price lists, the I-Team found a cafeteria table available to schools for $1,748.

The same table is advertised online for $1,170 -- $578 less.

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