The new middle school as of earlier this year. Courtesy photo

New Select Board chair: School Committee should respond to Ellen Garrison questions

By Celeste Katz 

New Select Board Chair Mary Hartman says the School Committee should engage with citizens who want to know if they’ll heed Town Meeting’s call and name the new middle school for Ellen Garrison

“[I] think they should respond, and ideally, they would hold a hearing to get more community input,” Hartman told The Concord Bridge Thursday — adding that she doesn’t see a future in an alternative proposal to rename the Ripley Administrative Building for Garrison instead.

The School Committee voted in February to name the new building “Concord Middle School” after a public input process that yielded nearly two dozen suggestions

Ellen Garrison. Image via The Robbins House

But supporters of naming the building for Concord-born Garrison, a Civil War-era equality and education advocate, continued to press their case.

Some note Concord has no public buildings named for a person of color, and elevating Garrison in this way would signal Concord’s commitment to being a town that actively supports inclusion and diversity.

On April 30, a clear majority of Town Meeting voters supported warrant Article 22, which urged the Select Board and School Committee to name the building for Garrison. 

Support for Garrison overcame arguments from boosters of “Concord Middle School,” who have said the name appropriately represents the entire town rather than elevating a single individual and that there are many other ways to recognize Garrison’s achievements without polarizing the community. 

The Select Board, in a 4-1 vote, had previously recommended that voters back Article 22. 

Newly named Select Board Chair Mary Hartman. Photo by Celeste Katz Marston

In that case, “we were voting as individuals,” Hartman noted. “We do not, as a Select Board, [have] any authority here to name that school” — a point she made at Monday night’s board meeting.

Hartman, who officially became chair on Monday, said there are now two separate issues at hand. 

One is “the naming of the middle school, and that’s up to the School Committee,” she said. “The other issue is, how does an elected board respond to votes of Town Meeting asking them to do something?”

Even if the School Committee says “‘We’re not going to do it,’ [they] owe the community a response,” Hartman said. “We’re [getting] very thoughtful, earnest letters from people that are either [saying] they weren’t heard by the School Committee [or] they’re upset that the School Committee’s not responding, and they’re asking for the Select Board to take action.”


A “non-starter”?

Speaking for herself and not the full Select Board, Hartman also called a proposal to rename Ripley for Garrison “a non-starter” Thursday. 

School Committee Chair Alexa Anderson, who said at Town Meeting that “Concord Middle School” emerged from a public, democratic process, last week floated the idea of renaming the building that currently honors Concord’s first minister, Ezra Ripley.

Concord School Committee Chair Alexa Anderson. Photo by Celeste Katz Marston

She expressed concern that in this day and age, “Concord has a school building named after a religious figure.” 

Anderson also said a Ripley renaming “will provide Ellen Garrison with far more exposure than the middle school. It exposes her repeatedly to an enormous audience, all parents pre-K to 12, as well as community members.”

Hartman disagrees.

“To say that more people will see that name [there] than they would at the middle school is just incorrect,” she said. 

“I think that there might be room for compromise. I don’t think this is a meaningful attempt at compromise.”

Anderson did not immediately respond to Bridge requests to comment on Hartman’s remarks on either a future public hearing or on the Ripley proposal.

As far as public comment, however, including remarks from residents upset that they did not get a chance to address the committee last week, Anderson said her group formally reviewed its comment policy last year. 

The under-construction middle school. Photo courtesy of Concord Public Schools

She noted that both the School Committee and Select Board limit the time allotted to public comments, with the school group allowing a longer period.

Those who wish to address the school officials are asked to fill out “blue forms” with their names, a practice reintroduced more recently after it “went by the wayside” during the 2020 pandemic era of Zoom meetings. 

“Additionally, we ask people to include the subject on which they’re speaking (which I’ll note that almost no one does) — the idea behind which was to ensure that we hear about diverse topics… but again, almost no one does that,” Anderson said via email.    

Ultimately, Anderson told The Bridge, “There is no perfect way to conduct public comment. Remember, too, these are our business meetings and we always have a hefty amount of business we need to accomplish, which is why public comment is limited.”

The School Committee next meets on Tuesday, May 21 at 6 p.m. at Ripley.