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Board tables decision to increase mulch spending

Rubber mulch on a Duluth playground. 2016 News Tribune file

The Duluth School Board this week tabled a decision to increase the cost of the playground mulch replacement project.

A change order for $12,475 was submitted by SAS Associates, the Duluth firm behind the design of the nine-playground project, which was approved by the board in June for a cost of about $1 million.

Unforeseen conditions and "faulty" assumptions have led to increased work, district officials said. The bulk of that stems from an issue with the tops of concrete footings that hold playground equipment in the ground. Exposure to these tops could potentially hurt kids, so the plan is to put down a poured-in-place rubber material to protect users from the concrete. However, it was discovered that the depth to which they are installed varies among playgrounds, with some being so deep the rubber material isn't necessary.

That means extensive work is being done to determine which playgrounds need it and which don't, instead of all of them, as was previously thought. On each playground there are between 50 and 70 footings, and they all need to be checked to ensure safety.

The discovery also means a likely reduction in the overall cost of the project, since those that don't need the rubber material will be less expensive to complete. Laura MacArthur Elementary is an extreme example, but it will probably see a $25,000 reduction in its cost because of this, said Dave Spooner, facilities manager for the district.

The project, which is the first of its kind in the upper Midwest, has been fraught with complications, Spooner said.

The company was working off of district plans for the playgrounds that didn't indicate certain issues, such as varying footing depths. Inconsistencies among sidewalk and ramp concrete levels have also been found and need to be adjusted. Aside from that, rubber recycling plants are struggling to take on the volume of rubber mulch the district is disposing of and there are varying types of drainage rock on sites. That all means more time and more work, Spooner said, noting the project isn't as simple as removing rubber mulch and replacing it with wood. There are codes to follow, he said, and no similar projects done in the region from which to glean insight.

Tuesday night, member Nora Sandstad asked for a vote to table the decision, wanting to wait until October to see if the project is completed on time, and if savings are realized. That passed 4-3, with members Sandstad, Alanna Oswald, Art Johnston and Harry Welty voting for it, and members Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, Annie Harala and David Kirby opposing it. The latter three wanted to approve the change order that night.

"We voted on this June 20," Loeffler-Kemp said. "We've been working with them in a very short amount of time to get nine playgrounds done because that's what we required (of them)."

Welty said that SAS assumed all of the playgrounds would be the same without digging into each piece, and they need to "eat that mistake."

District CFO Doug Hasler warned the board that this sort of move may make companies wary of working with the district in the future, not knowing whether they will be paid for their efforts.

"Assumptions weren't faulty because we dropped the ball, it's because things in reality don't always line up the way we expect them to," he said.

SAS has worked "tirelessly and honestly," Spooner said. "We should compensate people fairly for the work they do."

Johnston said hard work doesn't mean more money, and Oswald said the decision was purely budgetary for her; staying within the approved amount.

The project was quickly rebid in the spring when the board balked at initial bids and insisted it be completed in one phase, instead of multiple phases as proposed by bidders. That has meant Homecroft Elementary, for example, is using its parking lot for recess.

The expected completion date is Oct. 15, but is weather dependent. The Tuesday decision will not stop the work being done. SAS has told the district it will finish the project whether or not the board approves the additional payment, Spooner said.

The board voted to remove rubber mulch because of its potential toxicity, a nationwide concern that is being studied at the federal level.