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Duluth playground mulch replacement cost may exceed $1 million

The rubber mulch on Duluth school district playgrounds is slated to be replaced over fears of toxicity. (2016 file / News Tribune)

Replacing the rubber mulch used on 10 playgrounds may cost the Duluth school district at least $1.2 million and take three years to complete.

The Duluth School Board earlier this year voted to replace the controversial material with wood chips, but wanted to see bids before settling on a timeline. The replacement estimate then was $630,000. But the lowest bid, district staff said at a Monday meeting, was $1.2 million, with the bid calling for four elementaries to be done this summer, four next year and the two middle schools in the third year.

Several board members appeared angry and frustrated during the meeting, saying they wanted the project re-bid and wanted work on all the playgrounds completed this summer. The board will vote on the $1.2 million bid next week.

The district is among the first in the state to embark on such a project, said Luke Sydow of SAS+Associates, a Duluth landscape architecture firm tasked with organizing the project. He reached out to contractors who did that sort of work for an estimate, but actual bids came in much higher. Numbers went up based on crew availability, the kind of wood product sought, crew qualified to do that kind of work and requirements of the school district related to liability, Sydow said.

The work that goes into the mulch replacement is not as simple as it looks, Sydow said.

The project includes removal and reinstallation of playground equipment for re-grading and drainage work, the use of a certified playground installer and proper disposal of the rubber mulch. No one submitted bids for completion in one or two years, Sydow said. All qualified bids were meant for three years of work because of a short construction season, prior work load, limited qualified crews and lower costs spread over three years. Because the playground equipment needs to be removed to do the work, the cost to maintain warranties on those pieces is included.

Addressing the call to re-bid, district facilities manager Dave Spooner said there wasn't much that could be done to alter the project to lower the cost, in order to do the project correctly and safely and in compliance with various laws. He said not paying for equipment warranties could be considered. He explained that the equipment needs to be removed to allow for 12 inches of mulch, as opposed to the six inches currently used.

Board member Harry Welty suggested letting the parent group that has advocated for mulch replacement take over the process, citing work some have done to find cheaper ways to do the project. Spooner said that would defy state statute that says school projects must be legally bid out to spend money.

Member Rosie Loeffler-Kemp noted the mulch replacement was the "first thing" the board has agreed on as a whole.

"I would like to do this project overnight but we want to do it right and do it well," she said.

Superintendent Bill Gronseth asked Spooner and Sydow if they could research using a cheaper material or reducing removal costs by subcontracting.

Member Nora Sandstad said the board's decision to ask for cost options for different timelines "backfired" on the board.

"I want it done now," she said.

Spooner said rebidding the project would set it back at least a month. Most members were more concerned with the timeline than the cost, which district officials said Monday could be paid for through short-term borrowing. The district already faces a $2.3 million budget deficit, and is struggling to pay for renovations of the former Rockridge Elementary School to accommodate students from The Hills Youth and Family Services. The board will meet to discuss borrowing for mulch and the school later this month.

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. The material is found on playgrounds and athletic fields across the country.

Parents have been raising money to help offset the cost of replacement.

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