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Rockridge and mulch projects move forward

Rockridge Elementary School in the Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth. Duluth Public Schools decided to borrow money to renovate the building. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

The Duluth School Board has agreed to borrow money that will allow renovations to the former Rockridge Elementary and replacement of rubber playground mulch.

The district is set to borrow up to $4.3 million — $3.6 million in facilities maintenance bonds and $615,000 in capital facilities bonds, to be repaid over five years. The first type is for work that can be repaid out of a long-term maintenance fund and the second is to be repaid out of the general fund. Some of the work planned at Rockridge — like new walls to reconfigure classroom space — doesn't qualify for the maintenance fund, and can only be paid for with general fund money. It will mean repayments of about $130,000 for five years from the general fund.

The borrowing is also meant to be used for a new $1.2 million roof at Lakewood Elementary next summer, a project that had been budgeted for, unlike Rockridge and mulch replacement. The borrowing frees up existing maintenance money to pay for the mulch project. That has been rebid in the hopes the cost will be reduced from the initial $1.2 million to at least $900,000. The board has approved mulch replacement at several district playgrounds, following months of advocacy by a parent group concerned about the potential toxicity of the material, which is being studied by federal agencies. It's used in playgrounds and athletic fields across the country.

During a special Tuesday meeting:

  • The board unanimously approved a long-term maintenance plan, which now lists the mulch and Rockridge projects, delaying other projects to make financial room for them and adding several years onto the 10-year plan.
  • The board unanimously approved the borrowing of $3.6 million against the maintenance fund.
  • The board approved the borrowing of $615,000 against the general fund with a 5-2 vote. Johnston and Alanna Oswald voted against the measure.

Oswald's vote was symbolic, she said, in want of more options explored to house the Woodland Hills Academy students who will be placed at Rockridge. Johnston said his vote was a statement against what he deemed a "dubious" project economically.

Both Oswald and Johnston — pointing to a $750,000 roof replacement at the school scheduled further down the line in the 10-year plan — said using Rockridge again will over time cost more than continuing to pay rent at the current Woodland Hills space.

If the students stayed where they are, rent was to have increased to more than $300,000 per year, upped by building owner The Hills Youth and Family Services, in order to pay for repairs. Superintendent Bill Gronseth has said using Rockridge for the students — who the district is responsible for educating — makes for fiscal sense. On Tuesday he said revenue to pay for things like transportation and food service, not currently the district's responsibility, will offset costs.

Board member Annie Harala said that to her, it was about offering the right educational space for Woodland Hills students, which didn't happen under the long-range facilities plan. The move to Rockridge also means a better chance to control costs, she said.

The former Cobb Elementary that houses the academy is being sold by The Hills to Many Rivers Montessori.

In other news

The board gave the go-ahead Tuesday to spend $445,000 on a new playground at Stowe Elementary. About $100,000 of that will address a school flooding issue. Johnston was the lone dissenter on that vote, saying that kind of spending on a playground couldn't be justified.

Member Nora Sandstad said she appreciated all the time her child spends outside on his school playground, and that "investment in updated playgrounds is a good thing for our kids." The improvements at Stowe will bring the school in line with other district elementaries. One of the relatively newer schools at the time, Stowe's playground was not updated under the long-range facilities plan.

Also of note: Harala said she wants a "community discussion" about selling Historic Old Central High School, with renovation and restoration costs expected to be about $18 million, spread over several years in the 10-year plan. Oswald, who has previously voiced that opinion, agreed. Neither said they wanted it torn down, but possibly in the care of an entity aside from the district.

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