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Duluth to rebid mulch project; boundary change process nixed

The playground at Laura MacArthur Elementary School is one of 10 playgrounds slated for mulch replacement. (file / News Tribune)

The Duluth School Board voted Tuesday night to reject the $1.2 million bid to replace the controversial tire mulch on district playgrounds, and instead decided to rebid the project in hopes of a cheaper price tag.

The board also voted against moving forward with a process that would analyze school boundaries to address enrollment imbalances.

The board was unanimous in its decision to rebid the playground project and change it to leave playground equipment in place, using cheaper safety measures to ensure kids aren't hurt by that change. It is hoped that would save $300,000. District officials said the goal would be to have all 10 playgrounds finished by Oct. 1.

A bid of $1.2 million was "unacceptable," said member Alanna Oswald, noting she is hopeful a revised project will mean lower bids, and a willingness from area companies to invest in Duluth schools.

Funding for the project is expected to be paid out of a long-term maintenance fund, and not out of the general fund.

The School Board earlier this year voted to replace the rubber mulch material with engineered wood chips, but wanted to see bids before settling on a timeline. The replacement estimate then was $630,000.

Rubber mulch is under study by federal agencies and the state of California to determine its toxicity. Some Duluth parents have been advocating for months for its removal from the district's playgrounds and raising money to help offset costs. The material is found on playgrounds and athletic fields across the country.

Boundary issue

The board voted 5-2 against the boundary measure, with members Rosie Loeffler-Kemp and David Kirby voting for it. Some members advocated for the work to be done locally, while others warned that might not be an objective way to do the work.

Member Nora Sandstad said the district needed a broader process for its vision, and she wasn't confident the demographer's plans would touch on its larger equity issues.

"There is a limited amount of community engagement we can grab in the course of a year," she said, and "important" conversations have been had this year surrounding equity and mulch.

"I am hopeful this September we can figure out the overcrowding issues," she said, referencing the projection that Congdon Park Elementary will be over capacity in the next year or two.

Loeffler-Kemp said boundary changes become emotional for many families, and an outside facilitator could help with that process.

"It should be done objectively and by neutral parties," she said. "I don't want this to become an east-west thing, pitting schools against schools. With past processes, those were some of the things I did hear" in talking to families recently.

Superintendent Bill Gronseth warned the board that the district doesn't have the expertise to do the work on its own, and enrollment imbalances would still need to be addressed.

The district paid $13,000 to have its enrollment analyzed by Kansas-based demographer RSP and Associates. To go further, an additional $6,000 would have been spent on analyzing boundaries, and $31,000 on a public process.

Some board members wanted to ensure the process would address east-west equity issues, and take into account things that might grow enrollment, like pre-kindergarten and immersion programs, and those that might draw away, like expected charter and Catholic high schools in Duluth. Those topics weren't part of the demographer's proposal, which showed declining elementary enrollment and space in many Duluth schools.

District boundaries haven't been changed in about a decade.