Concord Town Meeting wanted the School Committee to go with ‘Ellen Garrison Middle School.’ Will it?

By Christine M. Quirk and Celeste Katz Marston

When Town Meeting voters supported Article 22 last month, they pressed a big question on the School Committee: Would they relent on their choice of “Concord Middle School” and instead name the town’s newest school building for Ellen Garrison?

As of early this week, voters still didn’t have an answer — but the story isn’t over yet.

“The overwhelming vote at Town Meeting was a simple ask — to ask the School Committee to name the middle school for Ellen Garrison,” DEI Co-Chair Joe Palumbo said. “That’s what we’re still waiting for — an answer to that ask.” 

Instead, School Committee Chair Alexa Anderson has proposed something of a compromise: Renaming the Ripley Administration Building and its adjacent fields for Civil War-era advocate Garrison.

After asking the public to suggest names for the building, the School Committee voted on February 6 for “Concord Middle School,” prompting some opposition. 

Three-decade Concordian Dr. Michael Williams, center left, has pressed for an Ellen Garrison Middle School. Photo by Celeste Katz Marston

The article passed by Town Meeting late last month “urged” the School Committee to reconsider and instead name the building for Garrison, a daughter and granddaughter of enslaved men who devoted her life to education and equality.

“I’m confused, because if we look back to Town Meeting, I thought the warrant article was a straightforward ask — to name the school for Ellen Garrison — and this isn’t that,” said resident Michael Williams, who has campaigned to name the school for the equal rights advocate for months

Appeals to the Select Board

Williams was among a string of Garrison supporters who made their way to Monday night’s Select Board meeting to press for action on Article 22. 

He asked the officials to bring to bear “whatever powers the Select Board has available to it, to urge our School Committee to simply answer the ask of the town — which was overwhelming” in favor of an Ellen Garrison Middle School.

Resident Chesley Chen delivered a statement to the Select Board at Monday’s meeting. Photo by Celeste Katz Marston

Resident Chesley Chen introduced himself as a person of color, a Chinese American whose four children attended Concord schools.

He said his family has always found the town inclusive and welcoming. 

“If we go with Ellen Garrison Middle School, Concord protects and keeps our reputation and culture of inclusion — a culture that welcomes and embraces diversity. A town we all can be proud of,” Chen said. 

“My fear is that if the School Committee doesn’t choose Ellen Garrison Middle School, we’ll tarnish the town’s reputation, and by association, the townspeople… I really don’t want to see that happen.”

Others warned that Concord could expose itself to accusations of closed-mindedness and progressive hypocrisy just as it steps into the spotlight of the 2025 commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the Revolution. 

“We have already made news by refusing to name a school after a local heroine. And now we are on the cusp of making even more news by, under the guise of legalisms, refusing to adhere to the basic tenets of democracy,” said resident Craig Awmiller. 

“I can well see how we could be portrayed [by] well-respected news outlets as genteel, superficially democratic, both-sides-of-our-mouths examples of knee-jerk anti-wokeism,” Awmiller said.

“Why are we getting caught up in this sort of thing?”

Select Board members at Monday’s meeting. Left to right: Terri Ackerman, Chair Mary Hartman, Clerk Mark Howell, Wendy Rovelli, and Cameron McKennitt. Photo by Celeste Katz Marston

Newly named Select Board Chair Mary Hartman, reading from a prepared statement, said it was clear that Town Meeting supported Article 22 by an “overwhelming” majority.

But “while we appreciate that citizens are sharing their views on this topic with us, [the] Select Board has consulted town counsel and confirmed that it has no formal or informal role in the naming decision,” Hartman continued. 

“Accordingly, the Select Board will not be acting on this matter,” she said. “I encourage you to write letters and to reach out to the School Committee to let them know your feelings on this.”

The process

Although there’s been vocal support for an Ellen Garrison Middle School, some residents stepped up at Town Meeting — and afterwards — to say the School Committee vote was the result of due process and should stand. 

The Ripley Building. Photo by Laurie O’Neill

Ayesha Lawton, a School Committee METCO representative on the School Committee, current METCO parent and former METCO student who identifies as a Black Latina, supports the Concord Middle School name and the option of renaming Ripley. 

“I believe middle school is where the students will develop a sense of community and in turn this will unify our youth and promote diversity authentically,” she said via email. 

“Naming the school after Ellen Garrison is not going to solve anything,” Lawton said. However, “I would love for Concord to commit to setting a time aside to [teach students] how amazing she was… I would love to see Concord practice the freedoms Ellen fought for.” 

In a recent letter to The Concord Bridge, residents Bill and Angela Healy pointed to the due process issue: while Ellen Garrison was a “terrific American and Concordian,” they said, the committee had already decided to go with Concord Middle School. 

“I don’t think not answering the question is a negative,” Bill Healy said. “That’s called a process.” 

“It’s called thoughtful and careful consideration,” Angela Healy said. 

A recent panorama of the new school’s interior. Photo courtesy of Superintendent Laurie Hunter.

Starting over?

Anderson, who proposed renaming Ripley for Garrison, said at last week’s School Committee meeting that she had hoped the previous public process and Town Meeting vote could stand in as a proxy for rebooting the naming process. 

But colleague Tracey Marano, head of the regional committee, supported starting over entirely. 

“I don’t think we can assume that the people who felt so passionately about it would be happy with this compromise,” Marano said. “I think as a School Committee, we usually want to hear people’s views.” 

School Committee METCO Representative Domingos DaRosa also suggested the group dedicate a meeting specifically to public comment on the controversial question. 

Ellen Garrison. Image via The Robbins House

During the 20-minute public comment block during the May 7 meeting, residents argued for both the School Committee’s original decision and for changing the name. Not everyone who wanted to speak got the chance, including Chen, who said he was the first person at the meeting, but was not called on to comment.

Anderson told The Bridge she could not comment outside of a public meeting on whether her board will reconsider the middle school name. 

The School Committee will vote on May 21 on whether to open a process to rename Ripley. 

Michael Williams, for one, still hopes for clarity at that time. 

“If they are saying no, they can say no,” he said. “Or they can stand up on Juneteenth and say, ‘The vote of the town helped us see the light,’ and they’d be heroes — and we’d applaud them for that.” 

Correspondent Sean Flannelly contributed to this report.