The Duluth school district playground mulch replacement project is underway, with the School Board set to vote on a design firm next week.

The board will be asked to approve $18,500 in spending for a firm that will research design and construction options for the 10 playgrounds - eight elementary schools and both middle schools - that need mulch replacement.

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The board in June voted to replace rubber mulch with an alternative, following pleas from some parents who have researched the issue for months. It's an issue that has become controversial across the country, and federal agencies are conducting a comprehensive study on the toxicity of crumb rubber - found in the district's turf fields' infill, and the mulch used on the 10 playgrounds. But parents implored the board to make the change before the studies are complete, saying the precaution was necessary to protect kids in the face of too many things unknown about the material and its effects on young children.

It could cost between $300,000 and $400,000 to replace the rubber mulch.

The firm is expected to coordinate public meetings to help decide a replacement plan. The next step will be putting the project out to bid. All playgrounds are expected to have a new surface by the start of school in 2017. There is no plan to replace the district's four turf fields, which could cost up to $2 million.