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BC Education Minister Peter Fassbender during a media scrum outside the government's Vancouver offices June 12, 2014.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

An independent report concludes Vancouver's Board of Education can save millions of dollars by closing at least 19 schools as part of a long-term financial strategy.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender noted the report also said there are more than 10,000 empty classroom seats in Vancouver schools, contributing to higher overhead and support staff costs.

Mr. Fassbender ordered a review of the board's finances last March. He said the Ernst and Young report found $72-million worth of potential annual savings and one-time savings of $750-million within the Vancouver school district.

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"[It's] obvious, in the report from the independent special adviser, that in the past the [board's] planning process and budgeting process was flawed," Mr. Fassbender told a news conference Tuesday.

Mr. Fassbender said the new board elected in November can take measures "to ensure that they invest every single dollar that they can in funding students."

The board of education said last March that it was heading for a deficit of about $15-million, but Mr. Fassbender said it is expected to post a surplus of more than $28-million.

Mr. Fassbender called for an audit last spring after he raised concerns about the board's consistent projections of annual deficit budgets, only to end up with balanced budgets months later.

The report makes 59 recommendations, including the need for an integrated, long-term plan to allow the board to make accurate and better informed budget forecasts.

"It includes looking at all the various options for additional revenues, and as I said already, to ensure that they are investing in students and not 10,000 empty seats in the Vancouver school district," Mr. Fassbender said.

The 225-page report said keeping Vancouver schools filled at a 95-per-cent capacity rate, which is the provincial target, could save the school district $37-million annually.

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Vancouver Board of Education chairman Christopher Richardson said the board is still grappling with the issue of how to deal with declining enrolment, especially when it comes to changing population demographics within Vancouver.

The report said schools on Vancouver's east side are underutilized while more spaces are needed on the city's west side.

Mr. Richardson said he didn't expect immediate decisions on closing schools because many of the empty spaces could be used for students who attend elsewhere during seismic upgrading at their own schools.

He said the board is preparing to address the report's recommendations in the coming days.

"I'm sure this will engage us in terms of our governance in the next number of weeks, months and years."

Mr. Fassbender gave the board until June 30 to respond to the report.

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