2014-02-27 / Community

Conti family leading charge to recall board members

Group targeting Connolly, Buckles
By Darleen Principe

Connolly Connolly Upset over the board of education’s refusal to hear an appeal of their son’s suspension, the parents of Westlake High senior Dominic Conti are now pushing to have two members of the board recalled.

Three weeks ago, on Feb. 4, the Conejo Valley school board voted 4-1 to deny a request from the Contis to review the case of Dominic, who’d been suspended and removed from student office by Westlake High School Principal Ron Lipari in October after confronting a football player who was sexually harassing his younger sister.

Larry Conti, Dominic’s father, told the Acorn this week that his family is planning to initiate recalls of Peggy Buckles and Betsy Connolly, both of whom have been on the board since 2008 and are up for reelection in 2016.

The family also hopes to put up candidates to run against Tim Stephens and Pat Phelps, whose fourth terms expire in November, Conti said.

Buckles Buckles The Conti family is not targeting for replacement 10-year board member Mike Dunn, who is also up for reelection this fall. Dunn voted in favor of hearing the appeal and has been speaking in support of the family and their efforts to have the case considered by the board.

“The recall isn’t out of vengeance,” Larry Conti said. “It’s just become clear that, except for (Dunn), they are incapable of doing their job.”

When contacted by the Acorn, both Buckles and Connolly said they had an inkling of a potential recall effort after hearing a few community members utter the word during the Feb. 18 school board meeting.

“It’s not a surprise to me that that’s a conversation (the Conti family and their supporters) might be having,” Connolly said. “But I have a lot of confidence in this community and their balanced perspective on the challenges the school district faces.

“That confidence leads me to believe that the community knows I am a focused and diligent board member and that I serve the community well and proudly.”

Buckles, the school board president, said she doesn’t take the recall effort personally.

“I was taught to do what’s right, not what’s popular,” she said. “And that’s what I’m doing. If I lose my job over it, so be it. But I know I am doing what’s right. And I know a lot of the things that have been said aren’t true.”

The issue at hand

The Contis, who’ve become the subject of a local media frenzy in recent weeks, assert that Dominic did not receive due process of law when he was suspended from school and stripped of his position as senior class president last fall.

The disciplinary action stems from an Oct. 11 incident at Westlake High’s homecoming game, when Larry Conti and his son confronted a freshman football player who’d been using profane and sexual language toward Dominic’s 15-year-old sister. The Contis insist they only wanted to take the boy to administrators and, in fact, asked a security guard for assistance.

What happened between the Contis and the football player that night remains a point of contention, but all parties admit the confrontation turned into a physical altercation.

Dominic says he acted in self-defense—pushing the boy to prevent him from taking a swing at his father—while other witnesses tell conflicting stories.

In recent months the Conti family has made multiple attempts, at various levels within the school district, to appeal Dominic’s suspension and get him reinstated as senior class president.

But on Feb. 4, in front of the Contis and more than 100 of their supporters, the board voted to sustain a previous administrative decision upholding the suspension, finding no cause to revisit the issue.

“They failed to, at least, look at the new information,” Larry Conti said, referring to the statement of one student witness that was neither collected nor considered before Dominic was suspended.

“We’re not recalling them because they didn’t agree with us,” he said. “We’re recalling them because we should’ve been their priority. Instead, look at how they treated us.”

Conti asserts the school board and district administrators upheld his son’s suspension to protect Lipari and the Warrior football program—an allegation that CVUSD officials deny.

Buckles, who is bound by law to keep the details of student disciplinary matters confidential, said she still believes the board made the right decision.

“We’re not stupid people,” the school board president said. “We would not do what we did without proof.”

Support grows for Contis

Besides being in the early stages of a recall effort—the family has not yet filed an official Notice of Intent with the Ventura County Elections Division—the Contis are planning to appeal the school board’s decision to the California Department of Education.

Larry Conti said the family is also working with an attorney to file a civil lawsuit against Westlake High’s principal.

“(Lipari) picked on the wrong family,” he said. “And other people in this community know how hard we’ve worked to do what’s right.”

Conti said hundreds of community members have reached out to his family in recent weeks to express their support and volunteer to help in any way they can.

Art Altounian, a family friend and neighbor, said he plans to help the Contis circulate a recall petition when the time comes.

“There are a lot of people that have come out of the woodwork to see these board members, minus (Dunn), removed,” Altounian said. “The way (the board) handled things at the (Feb. 4) meeting—it’s heartless. It was a big, big mistake. It was handled so poorly that I’ll do whatever the Contis need me to do.”

In order to get a recall on the November ballot, the Contis must serve Buckles and Connolly with a Notice of Intention and file it with the Ventura County clerk and recorder’s office. The board members being recalled would then have seven days to submit 200-word responses, which would be printed on the recall petition.

After the county approves the language on the petition, the recall proponents would have 160 days to collect about 12,000 signatures—or 15 percent of the roughly 80,000 registered voters within CVUSD’s boundaries—to call an election.

Martin Cobos, a Ventura County elections manager, said that in order for the recall election to take place in November, the clerk and recorder’s office would need to receive the signatures by mid-May.

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