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Playground mulch to be replaced, timeline uncertain

Rubber mulch made from recycled tires covers the playground at Duluth's Lester Park Elementary School. (2015 file / News Tribune)

After more than 90 minutes of discussion and a litany of amendments, the Duluth School Board voted unanimously Tuesday night to replace rubber playground mulch with wood chips, but put off a decision on the timeline for installation.

Board members were split on doing all of the district's playgrounds at once or stretching out the project in the interest of saving money. The engineered wood fiber is expected to cost $630,000, and paying for it will require dipping into the general fund at the expense of other programs.

Board Member Rosie Loeffler-Kemp proposed moving forward with the engineered wood product as opposed to a poured-in place rubber mat, and soliciting bids for both one-year and three-year installation. Spreading the work over three years is expected to be less expensive, said Dave Spooner, facilities manager for the district.

Members also added provisions to complete only the elementary school playgrounds with a cost option for adding the middle schools.

Installing the engineered wood fiber — which a group of concerned parents has advocated for — includes excavation and drainage work. The use of rubber mulch, or crumb rubber, in school athletic fields and playgrounds has sparked concern across the country, spurring federal agencies to conduct a study of its toxicity.

The results aren't in, but the board, encouraged by some parents, moved to replace the material anyway in the face of unknown possible hazards to kids. Lowell Elementary parent Kristen Klos-Maki advocated to the board Tuesday for the wood fiber, and for each playground to be finished for the start of next school year. She said she and other parents are willing to help raise money to pay for the project.

"All of the children of the district deserve to have healthy playgrounds at the same time," she said.

Myers-Wilkins Elementary parent Avesa Rockwell said she was part of the parent group that first advocated for and researched mulch removal. Since then, she's been convinced that fears were "overblown" and would feel responsible if money is taken from the general fund to pay for something that isn't yet known to be an issue, she said.

Mobilizing as parents to raise money is hard, and "Duluth parents, even those that signed the petition to remove the mulch, need more time to understand what will be sacrificed" to replace it, Rockwell said.

The district faces an as-yet-unspecified deficit for the coming year. Last year it balanced its budget with more than $3 million in reductions. Minus whatever is raised for the project, the cost will be added to the deficit, Superintendent Bill Gronseth said.

Stretching the work over three years would mean less of a financial impact, as hard as the conversation about who goes first would be, he said.

Getting all of the schools done at once "will be felt," he said. "We will have to make cuts so deep they will be felt in the classroom."

Board members — appearing to be split on whether to stagger the timing of the project — are hoping parents will help raise money. Once bids are in, the board will decide on a timeline and, if the project won't be completed this summer, which schools will go first.

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