01/11/2012 10:13 EST | Updated 03/12/2012 05:12 EDT

New Brunswick wants to cut the number of school districts by half

FREDERICTON - New Brunswick's education minister is planning to cut the number of school districts by half, and Jody Carr says more changes for schools are coming.

Carr says chopping the number of districts to seven from 14 would save $5 million a year in administration costs that will be reinvested in the classroom.

"I believe we can do better with the dollars we have and make a greater difference in the classroom by finding savings through such things as administration and shared services," he told a news conference Wednesday in Fredericton.

"Rather than 14 districts duplicating some of the services, we can streamline that and provide better outcomes for students in the classroom."

Carr said the changes are needed because of increasing costs and declining student enrolment.

In the last decade, the number of students in the province has dropped by 15 per cent while costs to operate schools have increased by 37 per cent, he said.

By 2015, student enrolment is expected to drop another five per cent while operational costs are anticipated to grow by 14 per cent, he added.

He said the cuts would also bring the province in line with other education systems in Atlantic Canada. Nova Scotia has eight school districts, while there are five in Newfoundland and Labrador, and three in Prince Edward Island.

Under the proposed system, there would be four anglophone and three francophone districts in New Brunswick.

Heather Smith, president of the New Brunswick Teachers Association, said her organization will monitor the changes but would welcome any additional funding at the classroom level.

"We will certainly be monitoring that to make sure that future announcements involve some reinvestment in the system, because the education system in New Brunswick has been chronically underfunded," she said.

Liberal Opposition Leader Victor Boudreau had the same message. He said the province could do with fewer district offices, but was cautiously optimistic the Tory government would redirect the savings rather than continuing to cut the education budget.

"The minister of finance keeps talking about this two per cent cut being an annual recurrence," Boudreau said. "That concerns us greatly, but if this $5 million can be reinvested in the classrooms, then it is certainly something we're willing to look at."

Carr said he expects the changes would mean a reduction of 75 to 100 positions, but he added that no decision has been made on closing any schools.

"The government is committed to minimizing the impact of this renewal initiative by using all the available strategies such as attrition, redeployment and training where appropriate."

The government is seeking public input on its proposal over the next 30 days.

The new boundaries would be used during the district education council elections in May, and the new councils would start July 1.

The government is also changing the structure of the councils to include more parents. As well, council members would be paid $3,000 a year, while council chairmen and chairwomen would get $6,000 annually.

Currently, members of district education councils are only reimbursed for mileage and other expenses.

Carr said no decision has been made on the location of district offices or whether any buildings would be sold. He said that will be part of a review that's also looking at the use of schools.

Many of New Brunswick's 321 schools are filled to less than 60 per cent of capacity.