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Finance Minister Colin Hansen is hiking per-student funding, renewing schools-upkeep grants and challenging school boards to find efficiencies amid cost-pressure concerns that are forcing boards to consider closing schools and laying off teachers.

The measures came as part of the new B.C. budget, which also commits the province to enacting all-day kindergarten for all five year olds by 2011, ending a long-running debate about making the option a reality.

"The school districts are certainly getting more dollars per student in this budget than they had in the past," Mr. Hansen told a news conference.

Per-pupil funding for kindergarten to Grade 12 students is to increase $101 from $8,200 in 2009/10 to $8,301 in 2010/11.

Total operating funding for K-12 students is to be increased to $4.66-billion in 2010/11 from $4.55-billion.

And seven months after the Liberals left annual facilities grants for school upkeep in limbo, the government yesterday announced $110-million in grants between now and March, 2011.

But Mr. Hansen issued a challenge not mentioned in the budget text.

"We believe there are efficiencies that can be found in school districts," he said, adding the education ministry would partner with boards to find them as well as additional efficiencies.

The minister did not elaborate during his news conference. .

Connie Denesiuk, president of the British Columbia School Trustees Association, welcomed new dialogue with the government, which she described as a partner in education.

But she was more enthused about the tangible return of the grants.

"It was significant for boards to not have that money to make sure that their facilities were kept in good condition for the students so boards will be pleased to see the return of the (grants)," she said.

Ms. Denesiuk also acknowledged the budget begins to address the concerns of the boards of education across B.C., and welcomed the possibility of a renewed dialogue with the government.

"Nevertheless boards will have difficult decisions to make as they develop their budgets because there will inevitably be cuts that need to be made in every district in the province."

In Vancouver, the school board has raised the possibility of teacher layoffs. In Prince George, schools may be closed. The province has had to step in to prevent some cash-strapped school districts from selling empty schools for cash.

Irene Lanzinger, president of the B.C. Teachers Federation said school districts have found all possible efficiencies and the "small" increases in student funding will not go far against such costs as pension contributions, and general inflationary pressures for such necessities as gas for transportation needs.

"They don't lay off teachers and close schools and increase class sizes because they have money sitting somewhere unused. They do those things because they have no other choices.

"There are no real efficiencies to be found that will provide the kind of money we need in the public education system."

But she acknowledged the value of full-day kindergarten. Under the plan announced today, it will be available to half of B.C.'s five year olds by this September and all of them a year after that.

"It does help families deal with daycare issues and it does provide some support for vulnerable children, to give them more time in the classroom, a stable place to be, increased learning opportunities, opportunities to develop social skills through play in kindergarten," she said.

The province has earmarked $44-million for the program this year, $107-million in 2011 and $129-million for 2012-2013.