03/26/2015 04:03 EDT | Updated 05/25/2015 05:59 EDT

Ont. education funding to remain at $22.5B; boards encouraged to update schools

TORONTO - Funding for Ontario schools for the 2015-16 year will remain stable at $22.5 billion, but Education Minister Liz Sandals says more money is being spent per student due to declining enrolment.

Sandals says the Liberal government will continue to encourage Ontario's 72 school boards to shift their focus from maintaining underused facilities to improving student programing and updating schools.

Sandals says 600 of the province's almost 5,000 schools are operating at less than half capacity and many boards are spending education dollars to maintain empty space.

She says the ministry recognizes that in some areas — such as rural and northern Ontario — consolidation of schools isn't possible, so there is money to help those boards deal with the costs of empty classrooms.

The government has also released new guidelines to help school boards review their schools, while working with municipalities and community organizations that could benefit from underused public space.

It has approved $150 million to help 31 boards with school consolidation packages as part of a four-year, $750 million program to encourage boards to reduce underused space.

The school consolidation fund is designed to make it easier for boards to combine schools to save space while recognizing that the school may need work, "maybe it needs an addition, maybe it needs a new library," Sandals said.

In some cases, where schools are in poor repair or not wired for the 21st century, Sandals said the board can put together a business case for building "one new school to replace three, old, out-of-date ones."

"The enrolment is actually going down across the province this year, so that means there will actually be a slight increase in the per-pupil funding," she said, noting that enrolment in Toronto schools is down 10 per cent from 2003.

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