Polar(izing) Vortex : Notes from the First SMCSD Conversation Club

On Saturday the 19th, 7 of us met at Firehouse Coffee in Sausalito for the first-ever meeting of the SMCSD Conversation Club. The full notes, as distributed to and edited by the group, are below.

After a round of introductions, the conversation wound its way from general goals and structure to the AG investigation to the campaign trail to finances and a good amount of time on polarizing words and phrases.

The main point of our club is to have a calm, rational, neighborly conversation about what are very likely emotionally charged topics and subjects. In beginning to identify polarizing words, phrases, and tactics we can then understand their roots and address the underlying concerns rather than amplify the rhetoric or stoke the fires of division.

If we are successful, each of us can carry back that contextualized point of view to our respective social circles to better inform and distribute a meaningful, forward looking perspective. If we are successful, the community at large will be better positioned to tackle the many tough challenges we face in our school district.


    • We plan to meet regularly on the Saturday following school board meetings, which typically means the 2nd Saturday of the month. I will send a Google Calendar invite separately. 
    • To receive board packets and stay up to date with scheduled board meetings, get in touch with Vida Moattar, District Administrative Assistant, at vmoattar@smcsd.org 
    • Our goal is to encourage and improve forward-looking conversation about the SMCSD school district in a variety of ways.
      • Online
        • Common Sense Connect is a private alternative to Nextdoor, Facebook Groups, or email (I am building it at my day job with Common Sense)
        • Post a link to books, articles, news stories, or whatever and provide a viewpoint, then discuss with other members of the club.
        • Search your inbox for “Common Sense Connect” for an invitation or send me a note and I can walk you through it.
      • In-Person
        • 2nd Saturdays, as mentioned above
        • Discuss ‘hot topics’ outside the spotlight and in a collaborative, open dialog
        • Share ideas for how to improve the conversation among the community, not just within the club
      • At board meetings
        • If and when we, as a group, want to highlight any issues or present any information, we will do so in a planned and coordinated fashion.
        • By meeting after each board meeting, we have time to develop a point of view and supporting materials before the next board meeting. 
    • We agreed that speculation about the AG ruling and related process/ next steps is not healthy or viable at the moment. When the board and all parties release their findings, then we can have a conversation about what that means. Until then, assumptions are not positive conversation.
  • Polarizing Terms
    • We want to identify words or phrases that are often repeated, especially in our recent election, that tend to polarize and divide the broader community.
    • Once identified, we aim to better understand their roots and causes, when appropriate find the source data or information, and then present simplified, factual information.
    • The group came up with several examples through open conversation:
      • $1M budget // defunding Willow Creek
        • Agreed that these were used as shorthand, obscuring complex budgetary conversations with simple sounbdbites
      • $10k vs $30k per student funding / cost
        • Lots of conversation here
        • The $30k number likely includes many expenses that are outside the classroom, $10k number may not
        • Implication is that adding a student at Willow Creek costs the student $10k while adding a student to Bayside MLK costs teh district $30k… which is not accurate
        • Very different funding mechanisms apply to each school
        • Capacity at Bayside MLK to absorb students at a much lower per-student cost due to high fixed costs supporting additional capacity
      • Partisan Board // Willow Creek Aligned // Bayside MLK Aligned
        • Mentioned in conversation and quickly identified as polarizing term
        • Presenting the board as aligned one way or the other does create an ‘us vs them’ dynamic rather instantly
      • “One of our two public schools” which equates Willow Creek and Bayside MLK as the same… which they are not.
        • Willow Creek is an independent charter school that is publicly funded
        • As a “school of choice,” which all charters are, they technically exist outside of the district even though the district approved their charter and provides the Sausalito campus which is district owned
        • The public funding is what guarantees all applicants a seat based on capacity (whether from Sacramento, Sausalito, Marin City, or San Francisco)
        • The “independent” part is what grants Willow Creek a separate board to govern the school
        • Funding is guaranteed per student ($8k+/yr) plus additional funding through the MOU process with the board (so the board can decide to provide ad hoc additional funding above the state guaranteed $8k+ per students) 
  • Tara Seekins, who very recently announced she is stepping down as Willow Creek Head of School to join the Peace Corps in South America, said (according to a conversation member and Willow Creek parent) we are dealing with a “situation of abundance” in our district. That phrase “situation of abundance” seems apropos to our budgeting conversation and related research before the next meeting.
  • Related to budget, it was shared that of our $9M total budget, $1.7M is allocated to special education. Representing such a high percentage of the overall budget, many of those present had questions about allocation and details. 
  • Next steps:
    • Send out this summary via email for edits (done!)
    • request budget or other data to provide a clear picture of our district finances
      (all pertinent budget data, so that we can be well informed as to total expenses borne by the District, as well as available district funds and their allocation, per school and per student.)
    • clearly define funding mechanisms at each school
    • create shareable list of “polarizing terms” (done with this post)
  • Want to help with the above? Talk to me!
  • Want to join the club? Register below!