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Duluth playground mulch effort gets a boost

Rubber mulch made from recycled tires covers the playground at Duluth’s Lester Park Elementary School. A group of parents wants the school district to replace the mulch, citing concerns about chemicals and toxins in the rubber. (file / News Tribune)

Parents raising money to replace rubber playground mulch used on Duluth school district play areas got some good news this week.

A family with the last name Miller donated $100,000 to the school district in 1952, to be set up as a trust with the interest earned for playground expenses. The district, Superintendent Bill Gronseth said, can match community fundraising efforts up to $30,000.

The Duluth School Board voted recently to replace with a wood product the controversial shredded rubber playground mulch used at most elementary playgrounds and both middle schools. The cost is estimated to be $630,000, including removal, excavation and drainage work.

Gronseth said further research into the original resolution needs to be done, but it might be possible to also use the principal amount of $100,000. He wants to find and speak with relatives of the donors, and wants to honor their wishes, he said. Interest has been used in the past to purchase playground equipment.

Duluth Parents for Healthy Playgrounds is the group that has pushed for the change. It has organized an online fundraising effort, partnering with Conservation Minnesota, and has an auction and dinner event planned for April 22. Through the online effort and a Chipotle fundraiser, about $3,500 has been raised.

The matching money could be the piece that tips a donor in their direction, said Aaron Crowell, a parent organizer.

"It's amazing news," he said.

The group has advocated for months to replace the rubber mulch, which is under study by federal agencies to determine whether it is toxic. Parents in Duluth have described kids rolling in it, chewing on it and burying themselves in it — all things that could prove harmful to developing bodies, group members have said.

The board's decision whether to replace the mulch all at once, in stages or at all, however, hinges on bids for the job, which will include a couple of different timelines and proposals. Those will be presented to the board this spring. The board must also consider this spring budget reductions in the $2 million-plus range.

The district could pay for the remainder of the mulch project with money meant for building projects, meaning the project wouldn't further eat into the general fund deficit. But if it does that, it probably wouldn't be able to pay to renovate Rockridge Elementary School for the use of Woodland Hills Academy students, at least for the coming year.

That's a prospect under consideration for next fall as the district faces either a rent increase for the students' current location, or paying to rehabilitate Rockridge, a school that has sat empty for several years. If the board chooses to do the Rockridge project, it could mean delaying the playground project or dipping into the general fund, forcing further cuts. Only a certain amount of buildings funds is available each year.

To donate:

Go to generosity.com and in the search function, type "replace the tire mulch at Duluth public schools."

To go the mail route, send checks to the PTSA, PO Box 3523, Duluth MN 55803. Checks should be written out to Duluth Area PTSA with "playgrounds project" in the memo.

The April 22 fundraiser is from 4:30-7:30 p.m. in the Skyline Lanes Lodge room, with food and a silent auction.

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