The Duluth School Board voted Tuesday night to move forward with plans to replace the rubber mulch that’s used on most district elementary school playgrounds.
The board voted unanimously on the measure, with plans to have the mulch removed by the start of the 2017 school year.
Board chairwoman Annie Harala said the board heard from many people in the community, which allowed it to make a measured decision.
“We’re happy supporting the public health of kids,” she said. “There is not a lot of clarity on what this is made of and it’s important we are listening to students.”
The board, through its approval, directed administration to find suitable mulch-replacement options and money for the project. A later vote will decide those things. Several parents spoke to the board thanking the members for taking steps toward removal of the mulch - which has become controversial nationwide in recent months for suspected toxicity - and urging them to act quickly in doing so.
Aaron Crowell, a member of Duluth Parents for Healthy Playgrounds, thanked the board for listening to concerns about the shredded rubber.
“I am proud this district might become a leader in protecting kids’ health by removing the mulch,” he said.
Kids’ interaction with the material is “intense” and repeated “day after day,” he said, noting there hasn’t been enough research on whether the mixture of toxic chemicals in tire mulch is harmful to young, developing children.
It is estimated to cost between $300,000 and $400,000 to replace the mulch. Some parents are advocating that it be replaced with an engineered wood product. Federal agencies and the state of California are undergoing comprehensive studies to determine the toxicity of crumb rubber used in athletic field infill and rubber playground mulch. Long-term effects of the chemicals found in the recycled tire rubber aren’t known, although limited studies haven’t shown elevated health risks. Board members have said they want to be proactive in protecting young children.
“I look forward to our school district taking a lead on providing safer alternatives for our playgrounds and I believe that using the precautionary principle as a basis for environmental and public health policy is a wise way to make decisions,” said member Rosie Loeffler-Kemp.
In other action Tuesday night, more than $3 million in budget cuts were approved.
As part of that, the district will eliminate three innovation specialist positions, (who incorporated technology into classrooms in new ways,) four instructional coaches and two mental health worker positions. Hours of some social workers will be reduced. About half of the cuts come from administration and support staff expenses and less than $500,000 come directly from classroom expenses.
The district has had a couple of years of reprieve from making substantial budget cuts thanks to operating levy money and increases in state aid, but Superintendent Bill Gronseth said earlier this spring that expenses have finally caught up, and declining enrollment has meant less state aid.
The district has less than $2 million in reserves, thanks in part to unsold school properties - like the former Central High School - left over from the closing and consolidation of schools under the $315 million long-range facilities plan.
The board voted 4-3 on the budget, with members Art Johnston, Harry Welty and Alanna Oswald opposing the measure.
Johnston Tuesday night attempted to stop an annual transfer of money from the general fund meant to help pay off long-range facilities plan debt. This year that was about $3.5 million. The transfer is part of the debt repayment plan, and was meant to come from savings related to school closings and consolidations, which haven't been as much as anticipated. He wants to use the money for classroom expenses, but not paying the debt would mean defaulting on it. Johnston said he wasn’t advocating for the district to default or raise taxes to pay the debt.
He said administration “got us into this situation” and can find a way out, noting the state should give the district a subsidy.
“I’m not a lawyer but we have to find some way to stop the drain from the general fund,” he said.
Member Nora Sandstad said she didn’t support not making debt payments.
“All of us have disagreements with decisions made in the past but we as a board have an obligation to properly manage the budget,” she said. “Not paying our debts would be a terrible move for any future investments we seek.”
Johnston’s amendment was defeated 6-1.