BREAKING: School Committee votes for ‘Ellen Garrison Building at Concord Middle School’

May 21, 2024

By Celeste Katz

The School Committee Tuesday night reached for compromise on the school-naming controversy, voting to go with “The Ellen Garrison Building at The Concord Middle School.”

But the question will apparently still go to a townwide vote in June. 

In February, after soliciting public suggestions, the School Committee voted for “Concord Middle School.” That pleased Concordians who said the name honored and elevated the town rather than any one person and sent a message of unity.  

But Town Meeting voters on April 30 overwhelmingly supported the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee-sponsored Article 22. 

That item urged the School Committee to name the Old Marlboro Road building for Garrison, a Civil War-era education and equality advocate. Backers noted Garrison would be the first person of color in Concord history to have a public building named for her.  

Concord’s new middle school campus, as seen in late March. Photo courtesy of Concord Public Schools

School Committee Chair Alexa Anderson at Tuesday night’s meeting called herself “somebody that really felt that emphasizing and elevating and celebrating our community over an individual was more important, so to me this is a big compromise.”

She said she doesn’t “love the idea of putting anyone’s name on that building, but because I’ve heard folks that elected me, I’m willing to do it.”

Anderson also said she’s trying to teach her own kids that “you can have principles, but sometimes you have to be flexible [when] good people are having those dialogues with you.”

She added, “We are all good and decent people really trying to do the right thing for our community. And even though the way we achieve it might look a little different, I think what needs to unite us is the fact that we are all supportive of kids and belonging and diversity and inclusion.”

At the same time, Anderson said, “I don’t feel like we can create a precedent where we say, ‘Hey, if you don’t like what we do, just put it on the ballot.’”

School Committee members floated various proposals for the new Old Marlboro Road building before their middle-ground vote Tuesday. Image via Minuteman Media Network

Amid the debate, School Committee member Cynthia Rainey told her colleagues, “I don’t really think we’re listening to Town Meeting.”

While the group considered many alternatives to “Ellen Garrison Middle School,” Rainey said, “That was not what was voted at Town Meeting, so I don’t think we’re being respectful of that vote.”

But resident Greg Creamer, for one, voiced strong support during the public comment session for the School Committee’s original choice of CMS.

“The opposition’s refusal to back down here is really driving a major wedge in our town. It’s harmful, it’s not very inclusive, and frankly, it feels sort of MAGA-like to me… We cannot and should not allow the DEI committee to overrule the decisions of our elected officials. That’s really just bad governance, and I think it sets a terrible precedent,” Creamer said.

“Due to this whole issue, many of our School Committee members are now being labeled as racists. I mean, that’s just a horrible thought. These are volunteers. They didn’t sign up to deal with this nonsense.”

On Monday, the Select Board voted to add a non-binding question about the school to a June special election ballot. Members, including new Chair Mary Hartman, said the School Committee owed Town Meeting voters a direct answer on its Article 22 vote.

The question on the June ballot asks if voters favor renaming the unfinished building simply “Ellen Garrison Middle School.” Hartman called the move a “good-faith attempt” to find “a compromise that the community can get behind.”

The Select Board’s Monday meeting, at which it voted to place a non-binding question about the middle school on June’s special election ballot. Photo by Celeste Katz Marston

Speaking for the Select Board Tuesday night, new member Wendy Rovelli told the School Committee at the top of the public comment segment, “We’re concerned about the divisiveness of the ongoing discussion and the erosion of trust in our town government.” 

The Select Board is less concerned about what the actual name is that’s chosen and more concerned with “restoring the trust in all of our elected officials” by ensuring the voices of all citizens are heard, Rovelli said. 

As Rovelli noted, the special election is not being called because of the middle school naming controversy itself. It’s for voters to consider a permanent senior means-tested property tax exemption.

But the Select Board took the opportunity to ask voters to voice a preference on the school naming. 

“We will know the will of the people following the June 25th election. It’s our hope that this information is heard by both the School Committee and the advocates of Ellen Garrison, and that both groups commit to abide by the vote of the entire community,” Rovelli said. 

“We acknowledge that this decision did not include consideration for the outcome of tonight’s School Committee discussion, but the deadline for setting the election date and final question was last night.”

Select Board Clerk Mark Howell, who proposed the ballot question Monday, told The Concord Bridge that speaking for himself, he considered the vote “a thoughtful and respectful compromise.”

As for the ballot question cast in the new light of Tuesday’s School Committee action, “The timing is unfortunate. The best I can say is that we are going to look into it.”

DEI Co-Chair Joe Palumbo sounded a note of disappointment after the School Committee meeting.

“Even though Town Meeting voted overwhelmingly for Ellen Garrison Middle School, it seems the School Committee just couldn’t get there,” he told the Bridge Tuesday evening.

This breaking story will be updated.