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Duluth School Board to decide on mulch replacement

Rubber mulch on a Duluth school playground. (2016 file / News Tribune)

Replacing the rubber mulch at 10 Duluth school district playgrounds is expected to cost at least $600,000, money that will come from the general fund and involve making cuts elsewhere.

The board in June voted to replace the controversial material, and directed a committee to find alternatives. On Tuesday the board is set to vote on the matter, deciding which material and a timeline for installation.

Proposed is an engineered wood fiber — which a group of concerned parents has advocated for — at a cost of about $630,000, including excavation and drainage work. The other option is a poured-in-place rubber mat, which would elevate the accessibility of playgrounds, but cost nearly $1.3 million.

Congdon Park Elementary uses the engineered wood fiber. Among playgrounds not at schools, the city parks department has installed a poured-in-place rubber mat at Lester Park.

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. California is doing its own study. 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.

The board’s resolution in June was to have the work done for the fall of 2017, but that could change if members want to stagger spending.

Options include deferring the decision until 2018 to hear what the studies find, said facilities manager Dave Spooner, or to phase in changes over three years. If the poured-in-place material is chosen, Stowe Elementary could be done this summer as a test site, Spooner said.

Stowe is slated to receive a completely updated playground as part of a long-term maintenance plan, as it wasn’t part of the Red Plan’s renovations. The cost for that will come from the capital expenditures fund and not the general fund, like the remaining nine schools that use the rubber mulch.

Board member Nora Sandstad said parents are concerned about both the potential toxicity and the messiness of the rubber mulch shards, which are trod inside schools and homes. She’s reached out extensively to parents, and is hearing largely that the engineered wood product is preferable.

She’s willing to move forward, with at least all of the elementary schools done this summer, she said, but she wants parents to know the decision will impact district staffing levels.

“I am hopeful all of the parents motivated to make the change will be motivated to seek grant funding,” she said, to help cover the costs.

Board member Alanna Oswald, too, doesn’t want to stagger the project. She agrees that parents want the less expensive, more natural wood product.

“The question is, how can we pay for it without robbing classrooms,” she said, noting the board unanimously supported removal of the mulch, “and we need to maintain that contract with the community.”

The district faces an as-yet-unspecified deficit for the coming budget year. Last year it balanced its budget with more than $3 million in reductions.

Along with Stowe, Laura MacArthur, Piedmont, Myers-Wilkins, Homecroft, Lakewood, Lester Park and Lowell elementaries and Lincoln Park and Ordean East middle schools are set for mulch replacement. Congdon Park, the last of the schools finished under the Red Plan, received wood chips based on feedback from other schools that had the mulch. The district’s athletic fields use crumb rubber infill, but there are no plans to replace those, and there has been no strong advocacy from parents to do so.