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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 12, 2007


VIP days are over
Leggerio bilked $1.2 from state

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — Nine years of living the high life off of stolen state funds came to an end on Tuesday for James L. Leggiero.

Pleading guilty to first-degree grand larceny, a class B felony, Leggiero admitted in Albany County Court that he bilked New York out of $1.2 million. Still free on $50,000 bail, Leggiero will be sentenced on July 2 by Albany County Judge Thomas Breslin and faces three to 10 years in state prison.

According to his plea agreement obtained by The Enterprise from the state attorney general’s office, Leggiero has to pay back the stolen money in addition to serving jail time.

Leggiero, 50, who lives at 135 Kennewyck Ct. in Guilderland, started a bogus company in 1998 called Very Important Properties (VIP), according to the attorney general’s office. Lee Park, a spokesman for the attorney general, said Leggiero abused his position as a senior auditor at the state’s Office of Mental Health to approve approximately 80 vouchers for VIP, a company that was supposedly checking sites for group homes.

Over the course of nearly a decade, Laggiero took the vouchers that ranged from hundreds of dollars to nearly a $100,000 and placed them into a checking account linked to the fake VIP company, Park said. He then used the used the funds in that business account for personal expenses.

Park said the money stolen totaled $1,232,072, and that he used the money to buy high-end sports cars and more than one home.

"We are pleased with the outcome," Park told The Enterprise yesterday. "He’s going to state prison and he’s paying back what he stole."

Leggiero’s attorney, Stephen Coffey, confirmed the plea agreement’s stipulations and said that they were acceptable.

"Let’s just say"It wasn’t an unfair agreement," Coffey told The Enterprise. "It’s an agreement that was made with the court and it’s an agreement that he will have to live with."

Part of Leggerio’s plea agreement also states that he must resign from his $79,000-a-year job with the state and agree "not to seek any future New York State government or public employment."

If Leggiero breaks any aspect of his deal, he will face a sentence of no less than "eight-and-one-third to twenty-five years of imprisonment," according to his court-approved plea agreement.

Leggiero’s wife, Kathleen, is also employed at the Office of Mental Health and was placed on paid leave after the attorney general’s office froze her husband’s bank accounts and seized his vehicles in connection with its investigation of the fake company.

Coffey maintains that Kathleen Leggerio did not know of any wrongdoing and has never been criminally implicated in the matter. Court papers say her name was linked to VIP, but never linked her to criminal activity.

Park said the attorney general’s office did not investigate Kathleen Leggiero and has no intention of bringing any charges against her in the future.

Jill Daniels, the acting director of public affairs for OMH, said yesterday that Kathleen Leggiero is still on paid leave from her $77,000-a-year job.

Leggieros scheme was brought to the attention of the attorney general’s office in February after the state comptroller’s office performed an audit and found that VIP had no listed telephone numbers.

The Leggiero’s have made several donations to local soccer clubs over the years, some of which may have possibly come from the VIP scam.

Mike Kinnally, who works with the Guilderland United Soccer Club, told The Enterprise two weeks ago that it was a "tricky situation," but that, after looking at their books, they found no improprieties. Both of the Leggerio’s sons play soccer, he said.

"We’re just moving on with working with the kids," Kinnally said at the time.

The issue of how Leggiero will pay back the $1.2 million has not been fully addressed, said Park.

His 29,000-square-foot Kennewyck Circle home is assessed by the town of Guilderland at $431,300. However, his wife who has not been charged is legally entitled to half of those assets, according to Coffey.

Coffey said he couldn’t answer how Leggiero would pay back the state at this time, but did defend Mrs. Leggiero’s interests.

"She’s got title to those assets, too," said Coffey. "She’s got an interest in these assets superior to the state’s."

Park was not able to respond before publication on how much money the state has recovered through Leggiero’s seized vehicles and bank accounts, but he said that repayment plans can vary greatly.

"It’s really a case-to-case basis on these types of situations," he said.

Both New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli have publicly praised the outcome of this case and have stated that their offices will continue to work together in pursuing cases that involve a breach of public trust.

Special deputy attorney general for public integrity, Ellen Biben, handled this case.

Asked if Leggiero felt any remorse for what he had done, Coffey told The Enterprise, "I can’t answer for him, but"Does he regret it" Sure he regrets it. Just because he hasn’t publicly come out to state that, doesn’t mean he does not regret it."


Panhandler arrested, registered sex offender

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — A registered sex offender was arrested after begging for money from motorists on Western Avenue.

John Haddock was ticketed on March 31 around 11:30 a.m. after an officer spotted him at the end of the Northway on Western Avenue with a sign that read, "Homeless need help, God bless," according to Guilderland Police.

Haddock is classified as a Level 3 sex offender, the top of three levels deemed by the state to be the most likely to re-offend.

Lieutenant Curtis Cox of the Guilderland Police Department said this week he was unaware of Haddock’s status as a sex offender, but said that investigators were handling his case.

Several times in the past, Haddock, 58, has been seen in the same area holding a sign and asking for money along busy Route 20 and Northway intersections. Haddock was arrested for similar incidents in April and June of 2003 and again in March of 2004, according to Guilderland Police reports covered earlier by The Enterprise. He was also once issued a ticket for using "a non-motorized vehicle on the highway."

"He was arrested down there a couple of years ago for the same thing," said Cox. "He took a couple of years off, if you know what I mean."

His signs in the past were also similar, stating that he was homeless and needed help and usually ending "God bless."

On March 22, 2004, Haddock was arrested for failing to register as a sex offender with the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services. The charge is a felony offense.

A representative from the state’s sex offender registry confirmed for The Enterprise that Haddock is a Level 3 sex offender, and that he raped a woman in July of 1989.

"The offender grabbed a female adult that he was acquainted with by the neck and raped her," according to the DCJS.

Haddock’s recent arrest report says that he was born in Charleston, S.C., and describes him as a 6 foot, 2 inch black man who weighs 220 pounds and lives at the Capital City Rescue Mission in Albany.

His occupation in the report is listed as "panhandler."

Haddock was charged on March 31 with loitering and begging, a violation, and was released on a ticket to appear at Guilderland Town Court, the report stated.

Cox said that there are no increased charges for repeat loitering. Each time Haddock violates the loitering and begging laws, he is charged separately and ticketed accordingly, said Cox.

"Mr. Haddock was asking for financial assistance," from passers-by, Cox told The Enterprise. "It’s a violation; it’s the same thing as gambling with dice or cards in a public place."

According to the town’s loitering laws, it is illegal to be in a public place with the express purpose of begging or asking for money.

Cox described the crime as "random," saying that he has seen it in other towns, too, but that it does not seem to be concentrated in any one area in Guilderland.

"We occasionally get them in town," he said of panhandlers.


Man robbed at gunpoint, suspects sought

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — Standing outside of his home smoking a cigarette on Tuesday night, a local man was forced into his house, bound with duct tape and assaulted, and then robbed, according to Guilderland Police.

Police say they received a call from a man at 10:29 p.m. who said he had just freed himself after being robbed at gunpoint by two men inside of his home at 122 Spyglass Court in Guilderland.

"He got himself free and then called us," said Lieutenant Curtis Cox of the Guilderland Police. "We think he was bound for at least 15 minutes."

The robbers, described as two African-American males, made off with at least one ATM card and a black 2004 BMW X3, Cox said.

Cox released video surveillance images to The Enterprise yesterday taken by the Bank of America at 1450 Western Ave. The images show a young African-American man using the drive-through ATM at the bank about 20 minutes after the robbery occurred.

The bank confirmed that the ATM being used in the images belongs to the victim, Cox said, and the car matches the description of the stolen BMW.

Cox said other items were stolen as well but would not name them because, he said, it could affect the police investigation currently underway.

"They did steal some other items," Cox said, "but we’d rather not say at this time."

The man’s 42,000-square-foot home is assessed at $700,580, according to the town assessor.

Cox described the investigation as "thorough and comprehensive." Police are using physical evidence collected at the scene, video surveillance from a local bank, as well as other evidence, Cox said, in order to work with surrounding police departments to identify and apprehend the robbers.

"We are conducting a full-rounded investigation," said Cox, who added that the Albany Police Department is also working with Guilderland Police on the case.

Police say that the victim was approached by the two men outside of his home and then forced inside. Cox said it is uncertain whether or not the robbers brandished a gun before or after entering the home.

"They definitely displayed a gun," Cox said, but added that the type of gun was not clear; only that it was a "handgun."

Once inside the home, Cox told The Enterprise, the robbers bound the victim with duct tape.

"He did resist," Cox said. "He received some abrasions, lacerations, and bruises during the struggle," which resulted in some bleeding.

"The victim didn’t even know that his car was missing until we asked him," Cox said. "We asked him if he had a car and when he looked in the garage, the car was gone."

The 2004 BMW, which is listed by Kelly Blue Book as being worth between $25,000 and $30,000, was found later that night at the Hannaford Plaza off of Central Avenue in Albany.

The victim told police he did not recognize the two men who robbed him, said Cox, and a neighborhood interview revealed that no other homes in the area were burglarized or robbed.

"It was just the one house. We talked to all of the neighbors and no one else was targeted," Cox said. "We think they got there by the use of another vehicle or vehicles."

Guilderland Police say the victim was home alone at the time.

He was treated on the scene for his injuries by Guilderland Emergency Medical Services workers and the Western Turnpike Rescue Squad, but refused to be transported to an area hospital for further treatment, Cox said.


GCSD adopts $82M budget plan, tax hike kept to 2.5 percent

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The school board last week unanimously adopted an $82 million spending plan for next year, after being divided on two budget items.

"It does what we always say we want to do," said Vice President John Dornbush of the budget. "It maintains the program and balances it with what the community can support."

"This is an unbelievable budget," said Thomas Nachod, the board’s longest-serving member at 12 years. "Not only does it have the lowest tax rate I can remember, but it supports the priorities of the board...Let’s just do it."

In a 4-to-5 vote, the board decided to hire a district-wide technology and career supervisor. And, in another 4-to-5 vote, the board agreed to combine the supervisors’ posts in social studies and English at the high school.

Both were part of the superintendent’s proposal for a $81,942,000 proposal, a 3.76-percent increase over this year’s budget. If voters adopt the spending plan on May 15, the district predicts a tax-rate increase of 2.48 percent for Guilderland residents.

This would be $19.40 per $1,000 of assessed value, Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders told The Enterprise; so a Guilderland homeowner with a $200,000 house would pay an estimated $3,880 in taxes next year.

This will be the lowest tax-rate increase in "many, many years," said Superintendent Gregory Aidala in presenting the plan. His initial proposal had been for $82,305,000 with an estimated tax hike of 3.81 percent.

The biggest change since the plan was reviewed by a citizens’ committee was on the revenue side; figures released last week after the state hammered out its budget indicated the Guilderland district will receive $400,000 more in aid than initially calculated.

Aidala also outlined $420,000 in reductions made since the citizens’ review. This included "breakage" in instructional salaries, largely from retirement, totaling $55,000; savings in special-education BOCES placements totaling $100,000, savings in gasoline for busing students totaling $15,000; and a savings in health insurance premiums totaling $250,000.

Based on recommendations made by citizens on the review committee and by school board members, Aidala also added $7,000 to transport struggling elementary students to a summer reading program, and added $50,000 for instructional computer hardware.

Combined supers

Aidala proposed combining the supervisors’ posts for English and social studies at the high school to save $67,000. This was part of his original budget proposal, presented to the citizens’ committee on March 1. The social studies supervisor is retiring and Aidala said the district should "try it for a year."

Patricia Hansbury-Zuendt, the English supervisor, was watching from the gallery during last Tuesday’s meeting. Moments after the board voted to combine the two posts, The Enterprise asked her how she felt about doubling her workload. "I’m excited about working with the social studies faculty," she said. "They’re a great group of teachers."

Hansbury-Zuendt said she has no formal background in social studies but has a "personal interest" in the subject.

In 2005, the school board ratified a three-year contract with the district’s nine supervisors, which included a 3.85-percent raise each year; in the first year, salaries ranged from $75,000 to $95,600.

In February, a committee made up of both social studies and English faculty adamantly opposed combining the posts. The committee proposed creating a writing center and phasing in a modified course load — so that English and social-studies teachers would, after three years, each teach 4.5 courses, rather than carrying the five-course load most other high-school teachers carry; this would allow them to focus on improving student writing. The budget, as proposed by the superintendent and adopted by the board, does not accommodate this plan.

Rather, English teachers will continue to teach four courses and social studies teachers will continue to teach five.

Hansbury-Zuendt has supervised the English Department at Guilderland High School for 13 years. She majored in English at St. Lawrence University and went on to get a master’s degree in English at the University at Albany and supervisor certification from The College of Saint Rose. She has completed her Ph.D. requirements, except for writing her dissertation, she said, at the University of Albany.

Hansbury-Zuendt taught English for 16 years before being hired by Guilderland to supervise the department. She currently teaches a class in 11th-grade English as well as supervising 21 teachers.

"I like being able to work directly with students," she said of teaching a class. "It gives me common ground with the teachers I’m supervising...I see myself as a teacher of students and a teacher of teachers."

Last year, as part of a presentation on the role of supervisors, Hansbury-Zuendt went over a 10-item list of supervisors’ responsibilities.

Teacher evaluation, curriculum and assessment, and professional development, she said, are tightly linked and "take up the great majority of our time."

Other duties include hiring; budgeting; scheduling; meeting with parents; communicating with administrators, the guidance office, custodians, the community, and local colleges; participating in activities beyond the school; and networking with other professionals.

Hansbury-Zuendt would give up teaching a class to become a supervisor for both departments since the workload would "just about double," she told The Enterprise last week; there are 18 social-studies teachers.

"This really wouldn’t be my first choice," she said of the combined posts. "In an ideal world, we’d have supervisors in their own disciplines." But, she said matter-of-factly, "That’s what the district can support."

Hansbury-Zuendt said she has no plans to retire.

Aidala told The Enterprise last week that it was premature to assume Hansbury-Zuendt would be the supervisor for the combined departments.

"We have to wait for the budget vote to take place," he said. "Then we will abolish the social-studies supervisor position to create a combined English-social studies position. From there, there may be some legal issues," he said. "We’re not going forward tomorrow to begin the hiring process."

Asked, then, if the district would open a search and interview a number of candidates, Aidala said, "We’re not 100 percent sure yet."

He said he hadn’t yet had a chance to meet with the English and social-studies teachers who "will undoubtedly have questions."

"I’m not going to discuss this in the newspaper before I have a chance to discuss it with them," he said.

At last week’s meeting, board member Barbara Fraterrigo said she strongly believed each discipline needed its own supervisor and suggested, if posts were to be combined, that there could be a single English supervisor for kindergarten through 12th grade and a single social-studies supervisor for kindergarten through 12th grade.

Asked about this, Hansbury-Zuendt pointed out that the district discussed this approach several years ago when replacing math, science, and technology supervisors at the high school and middle school and decided then on the site-based approach.

Ultimately, four board members — Hy Dubowsky, Fraterrigo, Peter Golden, and board President Richard Weisz — voted to keep two separate supervisors at the high school while five board members — Cathy Barber, Dornbush, Denise Eisele, Nachod, and Colleen O’Connell— voted to combine the English and social-studies posts.

Tech additions

The board set two priorities for this year — to start teaching foreign language in the elementary school and to develop an enhanced technology program.

The budget includes $120,000 to hire two Spanish teachers to teach kindergartners and first- and second-graders at the district’s five elementary schools.

Increased costs for math, science, and technology total $319,000. This includes a math-science enrichment teacher at the middle school and a 20-week technology course for sixth-graders. At the high school, it includes sending a student to the new regional Tech Valley High School, introducing a digital photography course, and returning the honors physiology course and the Advanced Placement computer programming course.

The Enterprise received a letter, however, from Thea Reed, the mother of a high school junior, who last year raised the issue about the AP course being dropped. (See letters to the editor.)

While the AP computer course is included in the budget, Reed says her son was told it will not be offered and describes him as "disappointed and frustrated."

He plans on majoring in computer science in college, she told The Enterprise, and having the course last year would have given him a "leg up" on college admissions. Reed suggested that, if the district hired someone from outside the school, with hands-on computer knowledge, it could inspire more students to take the course.

A decision has not yet been reached on whether or not to offer the AP computer programming course next year, Aidala told The Enterprise. He had assumed that, if the course were offered every other year, enough students would sign up for it, he said. Last year, he told The Enterprise, that, to be cost-effective there should be 10 or more students in the course.

"Only six students signed up," Aidala said last week. "We haven’t made a decision. We’ll see if more students sign up."

Asked if the course would be offered for fewer than 10 students, Aidala said, "That hasn’t been determined yet. We’ve talked so much about technology and expanding our options."

Aidala will consult with the high school principal and the math, science, and technology supervisor to make a decision by the middle of May, he said.

The AP computer course was not discussed at last week’s board meeting.

There was lengthy discussion, however, on the new supervisor’s post.

Aidala’s proposal called for adding three-fifths of a position, at a cost of $45,000, to create a career and technology supervisor position for the district. This would take the current post from a coordinator level to a supervisor position.

"We’re taking an aggressive approach," said Aidala.

Board member Denise Eisele said she "wholeheartedly" supported creating the new post, stating the supervisor would be the "go-to person" for the district as it developed its technology programs.

Board member Colleen O’Connell supported it, too, saying it "honors" the priorities set by the board.

Board member Barbara Fraterrigo opposed creating the new post, saying the responsibilities were "too unclear"; she suggested putting the money instead towards more computer hardware.

She said, too, that the architects the district has chosen to advise a facilities committee have expertise in technology.

"We don’t want to be paying double," said Fraterrigo.

Guilderland has been allocated $1.78 million in EXCEL (Expanding our Children’s Education and Learning) Aid to be used for projects related to education technology, health and safety, accessibility, and energy.

The committee is charged with developing a plan that emphasizes the needs of the five elementary schools and district-wide instructional technology; it is slated to present recommendations to the school board in June. The committee may recommend using just the $1.78 million or may recommend using that as seed money with additional funding.

O’Connell, who is a member of the facilities committee, which, she said, will be finished by July 1, asserted, "I’m not willing to wait."

Eisele, a nurse, described a new pediatric unit that was built on a hospital under the guidance of a well-trained architect, but without the guidance of nurses or patients’ parents. She said the result was a unit that was not functional for the needs of children.

Ultimately, four board members — Barber, Dubowsky, Fraterrigo, and Golden — voted for abolishing the new position and five — Dornbush, Eisele, Nachod, O’Connell, and Weisz — voted to keep it.

Dubowsky proposed waiting to hire a career and technology supervisor after a new superintendent is selected. Aidala is retiring in the fall and the board is currently in the midst searching for a new superintendent.

"When a new CEO comes on board," said Dubowsky, "they have the opportunity to pick their executive staff."

The board agreed to vote on Dubowsky’s proposal at its next meeting.


Incorporated in budget
GCSD to save $300K through health-insurance changes

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Changes in health insurance for school-district employees, to save the district an estimated $300,000, were incorporated in the budget proposal for next year, and approved by the school board when it adopted the $82 million plan last week.

At last Tuesday’s school-board meeting, Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders went over four recommendations made by the district’s health-insurance committee. The board did not discuss the recommendations. But, by accepting the committee’s report and then by adopting the budget, those recommendations were approved, said Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Susan Tangorre this week.

Both Sanders and Tangorre sit on the committee, which also includes representatives from each of the district’s 12 bargaining units. Guilderland, unlike most districts, does not negotiate health benefits during the collective-bargaining process with labor unions, but, rather, has a district health-insurance committee to make recommendations.

Sanders began by going over the estimated rate changes. The district has four different health-insurance plans, covering medical, dental, and prescription drug costs.

Most Guilderland workers, about 59 percent, as of 2006, used CDPHP, a health-maintenance organization, while 22 percent use Blue Shield PPO; 12 percent use Blue Shield Health Plan, another experienced-rated plan; and 7 percent use MVP, another health-maintenance organization.

Guilderland workers pay for 20 percent of their health-insurance costs, while the district pays for the remaining 80 percent.

"There are no changes in terms of the percentage paid for employer contributions," said Tangorre this week.

Estimates on rate renewal increases are: 3.5 percent for Blue Shield PPO, 9.6 percent for Blue Shield Point of Service, 12.6 percent for CDPHP health-maintenance organization, and 7.9 percent for MVP health maintenance organization.

The committee, said Sanders, used a report by consultants it hired, UHY Advisors, as "a guiding document" in formulating its recommendations.

The district estimates it will save $85,000, Sanders said, by changing prescription drug coverage.

"Under Express Scripts," said Tangorre, "we had a rider that said, if you order 100 units of medication from a pharmacy, you only made one co-pay. It was rolled over for many years. Today, that usually equals three co-pays, since most pharmacies dispense 30 units" for a single co-pay, she said. The district will "ease in" to the change, she said, so employees will be making two co-pays for 100 units of medication.

The co-pay for generic drugs is $5, for brand-name drugs is $10, and for non-formulary drugs is $25, she said. (A formulary is an insurance company’s list of preferred generic and brand-name drugs; a non-formulary drug is a medication that has a preferred alternative listed by the company.)

Second, the committee recommended, for a savings estimated at $85,000, continuing with CanaRx, a Canadian prescription drug plan started this school year.

"It provides brand-name drugs for routine maintenance for things like high blood pressure or diabetes," said Tangorre this week. "There is no co-pay for the employee but it’s a much lower rate for us to reimburse."

The program is mail-order only, Tangorre said. "We’re hoping a larger percentage will use it," she said.

Currently, about 15 percent of Guilderland employees use CanaRx, said Tangorre. Pointing out that many people don’t need maintenance drugs, Tangorre said, "Usually, about 33 percent is the most of any population that would use it"We’re almost half-way there."

Third, the committee recommended using drug step-therapy programs to encourage the use of generic drugs, for an estimated savings of $130,000.

"That’s a conservative estimate," said Tangorre. The program requires that a doctor first prescribe a generic drug "to see if it’s effective," said Tangorre. "People have a bias towards advertised drugs," she said. "Nothing now says a brand-name drug is better. We certainly know generic drugs are cheaper. Everyone then would have the ability to go to a brand-name drug, in consultation with their physician," she said, if the generic drugs weren’t effective.

Fourth, said Sanders, offering a Medicare choice plan for HMO retirees over the age of 65 is being explored.

"The government is trying to get out of the Medicare business," he said. This would be a voluntary option, Sanders said; no one would be required to switch.

Other business

In other business at its April 3 meeting, the school board:

— Watched a video produced by Nicholas Viscio, the district’s media specialist, on programs to ease the transition from middle school to high school. (The Enterprise covered the programs earlier; to read the story on-line, go to www.altamontenterprise.com, then go to "Archives" under Sept. 21, 2006, and look under "Guilderland";

— Heard from board member Colleen O’Connell that the high school PTSA silent auction has "a great turnout" and preliminary figures show that over $13,000 was raised; and

— Met in executive session to discuss a student issue.


Jennifer Roy shares her art
A story of survival against all odds in the Lodz ghetto is told in the voice of a child

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — "In 1939, the Germans invaded the town of Lodz, Poland," says the prologue to Jennifer Roy’s book. "They forced all of the Jewish people to live in a small part of the city called a ghetto....

"In 1945, the war ended. The Germans surrendered, and the ghetto was liberated. Out of more than a quarter of a million people, only about 800 walked out of the ghetto. Of those who survived, only twelve were children.

"I was one of the twelve."

Those words were spoken by Sylvia Perlmutter, Roy’s aunt.

Now in her seventies, Perlmutter, who lives in Maryland, began sharing her story with her niece, an author living in upstate New York. Roy spent hours talking to her aunt by telephone and tape-recorded the interviews.

Then, over the course of a year, she wrote her story in a book called Yellow Star.

Last week, Roy talked to students at Farnsworth Middle School about how she wrote the book. She was especially struck by one of her aunt’s stories.

As Nazi soldiers systematically scour the ghetto to take all the Jewish children, Syvia, as she is called before coming to America, waits with her family — her Papa, her Mother, and her sister, Dora, who is old enough to work and pass for an adult.

When they hear the Nazis coming, Syvia’s father runs with her to the graveyard, where they hide.

"When she told me the story, I said, ‘Holy cow! This is where I should start the book," Roy told the roomful of attentive students.

Roy started writing the book in the third person: "Papa," Syvia cried, "the Nazis will take me...."

"I thought, this is so boring," said Roy. "So I re-wrote it from Syvia’s point of view: ‘I fell over the wall and landed hard.’ That’s better, but still not right."

Roy told her rapt audience about writing: "It’s not perfect the first time."

She went on, "So I tried free verse. I’m not a poet, but it felt right, so I tried it....Free verse — it’s a story; it doesn’t rhyme. Just listen to the sounds of the words, the rhythm of the phrases. Just feel how it makes you feel:

First Papa lifts me up
and over.
Thud! I land on my hands and knees
on hard dirt.
Papa climbs over
and jumps to the ground.

This way, this way.
Hurry, hurry.

Papa picks me up and takes my hand again,
and we start running.
It is nighttime,
but the moon is shining.
There is just enough light to see
the rows of light-colored gravestones.

"It just flowed out of me, onto the paper," Roy told the Farnsworth students. "Then I realized, that’s not the beginning of the book. I will write it from when she was a little girl."

And so the story begins in the fall of 1939, when Syvia is four-and-a-half years old, in her parents’ parlor at tea time.
It describes, all in Syvia’s voice, how she must wear a yellow Star of David on her beloved orange coat to identify herself as a Jew: "I wish I could rip the star off (carefully, stitch by stitch, so as not to ruin my lovely coat), because yellow is meant to be a happy color, not the color of hate."

Roy, who has written more that 30 books for children and young adults, including a series on how to write, told the students about the similes and metaphors she used in the book and the symbols that tie it together.

The central symbol is that in the book’s title — Yellow Star.

"The symbol changes in the book," said Roy.

Near the end, most of the ghetto’s residents have been killed or shipped off to death camps, and only a dozen children remain, hiding in a cellar.

In 1945, nearly six years after she came to the ghetto, Syvia is almost 10 and the ghetto is being bombed. Survivors crawl out from their hiding places, away from collapsing buildings, and gather in the snow in an open courtyard. They declare it a miracle that they are not bombed.

Then, Papa returns from talking to one of the Russian soldiers who liberated the ghetto:

"‘I have a wonderful story to tell you!’ Papa announces. People gather around Papa to listen.

"‘That Russian soldier is a major, the leader of his men. And, yes, he is Jewish. He was actually up in one of the planes dropping bombs on the ghetto.

"‘He had orders so demolish the whole ghetto, and he and his men were doing so, when he flew over the courtyard. And guess what" The spotlight on his plane shone down and he saw...’

"Papa pauses. We all lean in to hear more.

"‘He saw our yellow stars!’ Papa says. ‘Our Stars of David glowed in the spotlight! He immediately ordered his soldiers to avoid bombing that area. Then he flew down to rescue us!’"

"So," Roy told the Farnsworth students, "the yellow star ended up saving their lives."

Lively exchange

The Farnsworth students had more questions for Roy than she had time to answer. (She spent five days at the school, in a PTA-supported event, lecturing classes and meeting with small groups of student writers.)

Roy showed the first group of students a picture of Sylvia Perlmutter, now 72, at her grandson’s bar mitzvah.

A student asked what Perlmutter had thought of the book.

"I sent it to her before it was published," said Roy. "It was too emotional; she couldn’t read it. After it came out, she said, ‘Jennifer, I loved the book. You understand me. The best part of the book was you brought my friends alive." Syvia’s two playmates, Hava and Itka, had been dead for years, killed by the Nazis.

Roy showed a picture of her own five-year-old son, Adam, doing martial arts. "He’s not allowed to read the book yet; he does know there is a family story," Roy said.

Roy also showed the 11- and 12-year-olds a picture of herself at their age. "See my big hair and little preppy bow"" Roy asked. "Did I know I was going to grow up to be a writer"" she asked, answering herself by shaking her head, no. "I wanted to be a guidance counselor. But I wrote and wrote and wrote."

"Why did you chose to write about this"" a student asked.

"I didn’t want to write about this at all," answered Roy. "The last thing I ever wanted to write about was the Holocaust. It scared me.

"But, listening to my aunt, I thought, ‘This has to be told. If I don’t do it, who will"’"

"What would you change in the book"" asked another student.

"I don’t think I would change anything about Aunt Sylvia," replied Roy.

"Did you have trouble writing the book"" Roy was asked.

"I have trouble writing every book," she said. "Some parts, I got stuck, but you keep going...By the end of the book, I’d say, ‘Syvia is still in the cellar. I have to get her out.’"

"Was it hard to get it published"" asked a student.

"A large publishing company said, ‘We love it but we don’t want it all in free verse.’...I went to a smaller publisher," she said, and, within two months, she had a deal with Marshall Cavendish.

Asked about her other books, Roy described her "You Can Write" series and her math series as "cute and interesting." She also mentioned her book, Israel: Discovering Cultures, and a teen book on romantic breakups.

"This was my first novel, and what I really wanted to do," she said of Yellow Star.

"Was it hard going on from the topic of the Holocaust"" Roy was asked.

"Yes, very hard. I didn’t write anything for a year," said Roy. "I’ve got two novels coming, but they’re lighter, happier novels."

She is writing a book with her twin sister, Julia DeVillers, also an author.

DeVillers’s teen book has been made into a Disney movie, Read It and Weep. A buzz filled the air as the students excitedly discussed this news.

DeVillers and her 10-year-old daughter visited the set and ended up in the movie, said Roy, to appreciative ohhs and ahhs.

"They hung out with all the stars; they were totally nice," reported Roy.

"Are you jealous your sister got to be in a movie"" Roy was asked.

"There is no jealousy," she answered. "It’s so hard to be published, we cheer each other on. I’m happy for her."

But, despite her sister’s brush with fame and the "ton of awards" her Yellow Star has won, Roy said, "Both of us agree none of this stuff is important. We took what was in our heads and put it down on paper. That’s what matters.

"I took my family history and put it in a book."


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