Declining enrolment in northern Ontario is pushing the province's four-board school system back into the spotlight.

Rather than looking at major changes, the province wants boards to strike partnerships to better use space in empty schools.

But some say that’s too difficult because some school boards compete for the same students to enrol in their schools — and every student enrolled means extra funding.

District School Board Ontario Northeast chair Doug Shearer said he has watched the number of students in his board drop by almost 40 per cent since Ontario went to a four board school system in 1998.

Shearer said he doesn't think the ministry's request for co-operation will do much to solve the problem of empty seats in schools.

“It's a fact of life that there is a tremendous competitive atmosphere between the boards and without the Ministry actually taking a hand in this, it is unlikely that we are going to see real cooperation in co-occupying space,” he said.

“As far as I can see the ministry simply just wants to stand back and let things develop on their own among the boards, which I don't think is ever going to happen.”

Politically dangerous ground

The push for partnerships also faces resistance from a group that represents French school boards.

The executive director of the Fédération nationale des conseils scolaires francophones said sharing space would threaten the ability of French schools to protect the minority language and culture.

“We sent a letter to the Education Minister Liz Sandals explaining our position,” Roger Paul said. “We are not in agreement with shared facilities between Franophones and Anglophones. I don't think that it would help us to attain our mandate, to fulfill our mandate. I think it would increase the assimilation rate.”

Proposing any radical changes to the Ontario school system has proven politically dangerous in the recent past.

In 2007, PC leader John Tory campaigned on extending public funding to all faith-based schools to reflect the current diversity of the province. Critics believed that could reduce the funding available for the public and Catholic systems.

Education then became one of the most contested issues in that provincial election, which Tory failed to win.

Few expect any political parties to make education reform an issue in the next Ontario election, which is widely expected this spring.

Sandals has told CBC News she is committed to the four-board school system, which is based on constitutional rights.

Critics for the other provincial parties pointed to other ways to get better use out of school buildings by also using them as community centres, or to deliver other government services.