Ironworkers Kyle Kappotis, left, and Paul Bowes attach a steel beam bearing the signatures of Concordians during a “topping off” ceremony for the new Concord Middle School, in December. Photo by Ken McGagh for The Concord Bridge

BREAKING: Ellen Garrison school naming question will go to June special election ballot

By Celeste Katz Marston —

Two months after a majority of Town Meeting attendees urged the School Committee to name the new middle school for Ellen Garrison, a June special election ballot will pose the question again. 

“This is the Select Board’s good-faith attempt to get input and to seek a compromise that the community can get behind,” Chair Mary Hartman told The Concord Bridge.

The vote to place the question on the June election ballot came a day ahead of the Joint School Committee’s next scheduled meeting, at which the middle school naming issue is again on the agenda. 

The timeline for the Select Board’s decision hinged on Concord’s plan to hold a June 25 special election so voters can consider making permanent a senior means-tested property tax exemption. 

Town Meeting approved the exemption as Article 15, but to enact it, voters must now approve the provisions of the state law that created the exemption.

Monday was the cutoff for the board to add material to the ballot for the election.

The question, as it was during Town Meeting, will be non-binding.

Select Board members at their Monday meeting. Left to right: Wendy Rovelli, Terri Ackerman, Chair Mary Hartman, Clerk Mark Howell, and Cameron McKennitt, along with Deputy Town Manager Megan Zammuto. Photo by Celeste Katz Marston

Town Meeting voters on April 30 voted overwhelmingly for Article 22, which urged the School Committee to name the new middle school building on Old Marlboro Road for Garrison, a Civil War-era advocate for racial justice and education. 

Slightly under 1,000 members of the town’s electorate — which numbered around 14,000 at the time — attended the meeting.

While the town prepared for the rare possibility of considering Article 22 by secret ballot, it didn’t come to that and both debate and voting were out in the open.

After soliciting the public’s suggestions for a name, the School Committee voted in February to go with “Concord Middle School.” Supporters say the moniker celebrates the community as a whole rather than any single person and stems from the due process of an elected committee.

But calls for a Garrison school continued and grew, culminating in April’s nonbinding Town Meeting vote.

Margaret Schumacher of Concord holds a sign in support of naming the new Concord Middle School for Ellen Garrison as voters file into Concord-Carlisle High School for Town Meeting on April 29, 2024. Photo by Ken McGagh for The Concord Bridge

Since then, Garrison backers have pressed the School Committee to respond formally to the Town Meeting vote

Regional School Committee Chair Tracey Marano, who joined Monday night’s Select Board meeting virtually, said the board’s move came as “a total shock and surprise” to her, as it had not been listed as a specific item on the evening’s agenda. 

The May 21 School Committee agenda, via

“I would ask you to also look at town counsel’s legal opinion,” said Marano, apparently referring to legal advice — publicly acknowledged by the Select Board — that says the School Committee alone has the authority to name the school. 

“We have a meeting tomorrow night to discuss this,” Marano said, “so it just seems a little bit premature.”

The Select Board ultimately voted 4-0 in support of the ballot question. New member Cameron McKennitt said he abstained because there was insufficient time to consider the matter after it was first introduced Monday night. 

The June ballot question will largely take its language from the Town Meeting warrant article, asking voters if they would favor asking the School Committee to rename “the publicly financed and owned property” Ellen Garrison Middle School.

The exterior of the new middle school, as seen earlier this year. Courtesy photo

Select Board Clerk Mark Howell, who proposed putting the Garrison question on the ballot Monday night, said the vote gives the School Committee “the option to just agree to follow whatever the citizens decide.”

With a special election vote, “We’ve got a clear process that people understand. People understand going to the ballot and voting something yes or no,” Howell added. 

“They know that only registered voters can vote. They know that the vote happens at a certain time. They know they can vote early. They know they can vote by mail. They know they can vote absentee,” he said. “There’s no reason not to participate in this, and it’s advisory.”

Hartman said she hopes to head off a backlash against the School Committee if “they keep the name of the Concord Middle School… It’s up to them now. It really is in their court.”

Howell said he proposed adding the Garrison question to the special election lineup after learning that the new Town Meeting Study Committee would place several non-binding questions on the ballot besides the senior tax exemption. 

Those include asking what voters think of having handheld devices — also known as “clickers” — replace the brightly colored papers voters usually hold up to indicate where they stand on votes. 

Concord’s School Committee previously displayed the 22 name submissions they received for the new middle school. File photo

Marano and School Committee Chair Alexa Anderson could not immediately be reached for comment on Monday night’s Select Board vote. 

However, Marano noted during the meeting that “we’ve had one meeting since Town Meeting and due to [the] open meeting law, we actually haven’t had any discussions as a committee. So our second discussion will be tomorrow night.”

She added, “We typically don’t vote on anything the first time we discuss it. Our vote is the second time. So that would just be the first thing. And we have received a lot of feedback [since] Town Meeting [and] upwards of 65% of the feedback, just for everyone’s information, is in favor of ‘Concord Middle School.’”

Anderson earlier this month proposed a potential compromise: Retaining the Concord Middle School name but rechristening the Ripley Administrative Building for Garrison. 

Hartman, speaking to the Bridge last week, called that idea “a non-starter.”

Asked on his way out of the Select Board meeting if he had any concerns that the move might somehow delegitimize Town Meeting’s outcome, Dr. Michael Williams, who has campaigned to name the school for Garrison, said he was confident that board members were looking out for “the best interest of the town of Concord.”

The Select Board on Monday again heard from a string of speakers who favor of a Garrison school. Photo by Celeste Katz Marston

Joe Palumbo, the DEI Commission co-chair who presented Article 22 at Town Meeting and was also present at the Town House Monday night, didn’t immediately say if he believed diversity officials would commit to abiding by the outcome of the June vote. 

Select Board members had said they hoped both DEI and the School Committee would agree to abide by the outcome of the special election and start mending fences in Concord over the issue, which has generated lots of talk in town and beyond

“Personally, I think it’s a beautiful thing to let our citizens have [a] say in naming the new school for Ellen Garrison. We saw the overwhelming turnout of hundreds of people at Town Meeting. This will be even bigger,” Palumbo told the Bridge Monday night. 

“I grew up in Concord, and when you give this community a chance to make history, they always come through.”

This story has been updated.