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In an unexpected move, the Lancaster School District announced Monday that it will not allow children refusing to take state assessments next month to read quietly during the end of the testing period, as it originally had said it would.

At the same time, the district released its initial 2014-15 draft budget of $98.04 million, reflecting a 3.51 percent spending increase and a $2.36 million deficit.

The decision on the test taking policy, announced by Superintendent Michael Vallely during the School Board meeting, was a bit of a surprise since the district had announced in January that it would be offering a compromise policy: Students who opt out of the state tests were to sit quietly at their seats for most of the testing period but would be allowed to read for about the last third of the test time.

That earlier decision was met with opposition by some parents vehemently opposed to the tests and who felt the district should offer a separate place in school for those opting out of the tests to read or do an alternative activity – or to read during the entire tests.

The district, along with Williamsville schools, has been a hot target for a grassroots movement of parents taking issue with “sit and stare” policies, as they term them. Williamsville, unlike some other local districts, has refused to provide an alternative activity or allow any reading by those who opt out.

But after the state Education Department last week gave a scant one-sentence memo on the issue that reiterated the state’s policy that students are expected to take the tests, Vallely said his administrative team, on the advice of district legal counsel, decided to reverse course and not allow any additional reading at all by students not taking the test.

No parents tied to the issue were at Monday’s board meeting to hear the news. Vallely did say he has a meeting planned with six parents today.

“New York State does not recognize students opting out,” he said. “Legal counsel advised us to avoid (the reading) and follow state guidelines. My job as superintendent is to protect the school district. I think, in this particular case, this is the right thing to do.”

Board President Marie MacKay, who has been outspoken on the testing issue, said: “This Board of Education stands behind you and the administrative team 100 percent.”

In a brief overview of the draft budget, the district plans to use roughly $11 million in combined reserves and fund balance to help balance the budget plan. It now has about $30 million in reserves and rainy day funds.

District officials were adamant in saying they will try to avoid cutting any programs or staff to whittle a nearly $2.4 million shortfall. The estimated tax levy increase is pegged at 3.53 percent, which would likely translate into about a 2.8 percent tax rate increase, if the budget numbers remained unchanged.

“We have a few weeks to really crunch numbers, and we’ll look anywhere we can to cut expenditures,” said Jamie Phillips, assistant superintendent for business and support services.

“There’s not a lot of wiggle room in there. There’s not a lot to bleed,” MacKay said, noting the district has done labor concessions, closed a school and had retirements in recent years. “We’re not going to cut programs. We’re going to continue. We’ll find a way.”

email: krobinson@buffnews.com