An ironworker guides a steel beam signed by Concord students, teachers and ironworkers before a “topping off” ceremony for the new Concord Middle School, December 8, 2023. Ken McGagh for The Concord Bridge

In reversal, Select Board cuts Ellen Garrison school naming question from June ballot 

May 24, 2024

By Celeste Katz Marston —

The Select Board reversed itself Friday, cutting a June ballot question that would have asked Concord voters if they support naming the new middle school for Ellen Garrison. 

The move came in the wake of the School Committee’s attempt to strike a compromise on the dustup by voting on Tuesday night for “The Ellen Garrison Building at The Concord Middle School.”

Select Board Clerk Mark Howell, who had proposed the ballot question Monday given a deadline to add questions, said his view was that “Town Meeting did ask the School Committee to reconsider their prior decision and recommended a specific outcome via Garrison Middle School. 

“And of course, as a matter of law [that] has been stated over and over, it is the School Committee’s authority to do so,” he said. 

Howell said he suggested the ballot question for the June 25 special election — which is primarily about a senior property tax exemption — to let all Concord voters express a preference on the school name.  

“It was in response to concerns I was hearing about how representative Town Meeting is,” he said. “It also reflected the concern that reconsideration, as requested by Town Meeting, might not be taking place.”

The Select Board met virtually on Friday morning. Image via Zoom

The School Committee, after soliciting name suggestions from the public, had voted in February for “Concord Middle School.”  

But Town Meeting voters on April 30 urged the School Committee to name the building for Garrison, an education and racial equality advocate who would be the first person of color to have a Concord public building carry her name.

The Select Board and School Committee remained under pressure from some Garrison proponents after Town Meeting. 

School Committee Chair Alexa Anderson at Friday morning’s Select Board virtual meeting.

At Friday’s Select Board meeting, School Committee Chair Alexa Anderson read from a prepared statement, saying with her group’s vote, “the Ellen Garrison Building will be the first public building in the town of Concord to be named for a person of color. The school will continue to be called the Concord Middle School.”

Anderson continued, “Compromise can be challenging, but it’s an essential part of good governance. We teach our young people to listen to one another, ask good questions, and seek common ground. That’s what we’ve aimed to do here.”

She said the committee believes “our action honors both those advocating for Ellen Garrison’s name to be on a public building. And also those who wish to honor the name of our shared community.”

After brief public comment, the Select Board voted 4-0, with Chair Mary Hartman not present due to travel outside the country, to remove the ballot question.

Said Howell, “The School Committee did take action on Tuesday evening. They reconsidered the middle school name and chose to recognize Ellen Garrison by naming the building. In doing so, I believe they have fulfilled their obligation to take Town Meeting’s recommendation into account.

“That action is also a commitment to the values of courage and service that we have come to understand about the story of the life of Ellen Garrison,” he said. “That story and its stewardship now resides with the Concord Middle School community.”

During she short public comment period prior to the vote at the well-attended Zoom meeting, resident Joanne Gibson expressed support for the School Committee’s compromise. 

She said the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Commission, which sponsored the Town Meeting article advancing Garrison’s name, should “be proud that the new Concord Middle School [will] bear Ellen Garrison’s name.”

 If the objections are kept alive, “at some point, you wonder what the ‘D’ stands for. Does it stand for ‘diversity,’ or does it stand for ‘divisiveness?’” Gibson asked. 

“[It] would be rather ironic if the Concord Select Board couldn’t accept a compromise which includes the name ‘Concord.’ You have the power to heal Concord, and I trust you’ll exercise it.”

Signs in support of naming the middle school sprung up this spring. Photo by Kelly Walters

Eric Van Loon numbered himself among those who had put a sign on his lawn and supported the Garrison name at Town Meeting — as well as an unsuccessful candidate for School Committee who had supported it too. 

“I have to acknowledge that in addition to my personal strong preference, we really do have two different points of view in our town, and the compromise decision includes both sides. It’s clunky. I don’t think it would get an A in English literature, but it is what it is,” he said. 

“I think it was entirely appropriate for the Select Board Monday to vote to put the question on the ballot at a time when it was not clear if and how the School Committee was going to respond,” Van Loon said. “But they have now responded; we do have a result.” 

But Colleen Walston argued that the ballot question should stand. 

“The Town Meeting vote was to name the middle school Ellen Garrison Middle School… It’s not clear what the continued source of opposition to that is,” Walston said. 

“I think it is reasonable to continue to take this to the people. The idea of naming it ‘The Ellen Garrison Building at the Concord Middle School’ is really just still calling it ‘Concord Middle School,’” she said. “I don’t see this reflecting the School Committee having listened to the will of the people at Town Meeting.”

This breaking story will be updated.