A school board member’s view on tire mulch

February 27, 2017

In light of the Duluth School Board’s decision last June to replace the tire mulch on school playgrounds, Jennifer Martin-Romme emailed all seven school board members with the following question:


The Environmental Protection Agency is currently working on a study of recycled tire crumb for use on playing fields. The EPA is expecting to have results in late 2017. Previous research has found no environmental or health concerns with the use of recycled tire crumb, but this study is intended to fill in the gaps and address concerns raised by the public. Therefore, why not wait for the EPA’s results before deciding if and/or how to change the material on our school playgrounds in ISD 709? If the EPA continues to find no health concerns, would you consider not changing the current rubber mulch on the playgrounds, and why/why not?

The only reply came from At-Large Member Harry Welty, reprinted here in its entirety with light editing.

Read more: Is rubber tire mulch safe for children?


By temperament I hate wasting money, let alone for a project that may be unnecessary to ensure our children’s safety. The Red Plan playgrounds should have several years of life in them before we replace the mulch. If there were no safety concerns, I wouldn’t consider replacing them.

Yes, there are several studies that suggest the fears are overblown, but I don’t expect any guarantees from the study that is meant to be completed at the end of this year. I suspect that it will punt and only tell us that rubber mulch has not yet been proven to be toxic. Both scientists and bureaucrats like to be cautious drawing conclusions.

If my prediction is correct, I will still be left with the question one chemist posed to me a year ago: “How will you feel 20 years from now if it turns out the playground mulch was toxic and poisoned some of our children and you did nothing about it?”

We are still waiting for more information about the cost of mulch replacement, which will come in around May. It could end up costing $600,000. That is an emergency cost that the school district ought to be able to support if we didn’t have such a Red Plan-depleted reserve fund. A one-time mulch replacement cost to protect our children would be a pittance if we still had the $10 million reserve fund our past policies mandated. It all went to the Red Plan building bonds.

The absence of financing makes it hard to address our needs, and the graduation rate dip reported in the Duluth News Tribune on February 23 (“Despite growth, Duluth graduation rate slips”) makes our distress stark. And the Red Plan pulls $3 million out of the General Fund each year. This increases class size and cuts into our programming. ISD 709 is unique among Minnesota’s school districts in this regard.

Parents can and have pulled their children out of ISD 709. I estimate that the Red Plan has led to an exodus of 15 percent of our student population. I know of a few families that are sending their children elsewhere because of our tire mulch. Each lost child costs us about $10,000 in state aid. Losing 60 kids over tire mulch would equal the cost of mulch replacement times every year they were absent from the district. Spending $600,000 to avoid losing $600,000 annually is an easy call. Not replacing the mulch would be penny-wise, but pound-foolish.

I have some caveats: First, we don’t want voters to think we are spending money recklessly by replacing perfectly good mulch on the basis of hysteria. We depend on the voter’s confidence to pass operational levies. If mulch replacement led voters to vote against renewing our current $1.8 million levy, it would be a terrible price to pay.

Second, I don’t want to spend General Fund (classroom) money. I want it to come out of our capital funding. This will have one negative impact. It will reduce our funds for long-term building maintenance. That’s a big deal. It was poorly maintained school buildings that led us to build the extravagant Red Plan.

There has been some doubt about whether we can use capital funds. Administration explained that we couldn’t use our capital funds. However, I’ve been told that Duluth Representative Jen Schultz recently told parents at a “listening session” that we could use our capital funds. Based on inquiries I’ve made, I think she is right. So it should be no problem replacing the turf, right?

There could be another claim on our capital funds that would take priority over mulch replacement. This competing claim is tied to the tricky issue of selling our empty Red Plan schools to non-ISD 709 “competitors.” Because we have a divided Board, I’m not sure our administration has been as forthcoming as I would like them to be. How forthcoming should I be?

These issues are all tied together by our budget. We will be having a Committee of the Whole to discuss this subject at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, February 28. Our Friday Board packet gave us a preview. It contained a single sheet of paper with two likely budget scenarios over the next two years. The optimistic budget assumes we will get more money from the stingy new Republican legislature. This lucky scenario will leave us with a $5 million budget deficit at the end of the year 2019. The pessimistic budget assumes that there will be no new revenues. If we are unlucky, we will face a $9 million deficit at the end of 2019. Oh, and I don’t know if either of these budget scenarios take the next teacher contract negotiations into account.

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