School Board member Lawrence Webb’s surprise announcement that he would be resigning from his position a month ago has prompted a farewell tour of sorts in the News-Press pages, including a Guest Commentary penned by him a few weeks back.
But Webb, who moved from Arlington to the City of Falls Church in 2005 and has been in public office for 12 of his 15 years here, has been a part of some major decisions. From helping get the City’s local election season changed to the fall during his lone City Council term to being a prominent voice on the recent decision to change the names of George Mason High School and Thomas Jefferson Elementary School on the school board, Webb has helped shape the Little City into what it is today.
The News-Press had one final interview with Webb, where he talked about those decisions as well as his thoughts on the schools’ reopening plan and what is coming next for him personally.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
News-Press: What was your political history like in Arlington and what was it about Falls Church that appealed to you?
Webb: I was involved within the Democratic Committee in Arlington where I had been politically involved behind the scenes for a number of years. Since I was a younger kid, I’ve worked on different campaigns, so it was that kind of thing. Moving to Falls Church gave me the opportunities to get more politically involved in running for office because it is slightly easier process to stay involved in a place the size of Falls Church versus Arlington, where there’s such a long line of folks looking to run for office who have been there, at that point, way longer than me. So moving to Falls Church, it just became a little bit of a natural, easier opportunity to get involved.
N-P: You ran for City Council in 2008, just three years after moving to Falls Church. How were you able to get so much support for your campaign as a relative newcomer to the City?
Webb: When I decided to run for City Council, I was already friends with some heavy hitters in Falls Church’s political scene thanks to my work for Arlington’s Democratic Committee. They were the folks who helped me understand how the process works. They also were very helpful with advice and gave me encouragement about how to get involved. In particular, it was talking with Ed Strait, who was a former City Council member himself years ago. And Edna Frady, who was just all around involved in a lot of things in Falls Church, so they were two folks I reached out to. I also began asking questions of some of the folks who were already on City Council, including former Mayor Robin Gardener and former Vice Mayor Lindy Hockenberry. I shared my interest in wanting to run, and then it was going through the [Citizens for a Better City] process because, back in 2008, the CBC was the be-all, end-all to getting elected to office for the City Council and the School Board at that time.
N-P: What were your greatest legislative accomplishments while you were on the City Council?
Webb: I would say probably one of the biggest things that I was involved with on council, and I will say it was controversial, but it was something that I saw as instrumental in increasing participation in City elections was changing the City’s election season from May to November. In a community like Falls Church, we are always one of the top jurisdictions in the state in terms of turnout for the November elections we held. However, when May came around for our local elections, you had maybe 2,000 people or so showing up to vote. In my opinion, that’s where the rubber hits the road for everything that has the most impact on folks at the local levels. From picking up your trash to educating your kids in the schools are all at the local level. And not very many people were taking that into consideration with the election schedule. It was a small group of folks who decided who was going to be on the City Council and or School Board when the elections were held in May versus the bigger, more inclusive group of folks who showed up in November to cast their votes. Falls Church, being as educated as it is, they always knew who were running for the state and or federal office during fall elections, and they proved to be just as informed when people participated once the new schedule was implemented. I take that as an accomplishment for me, because if it was something that people in the city had just been used to and didn’t want it to change. But looking at it, I think it needed to change because it opened the door for more people to take part in municipal elections.
N-P: You were the decisive vote in the Council’s decision to nix a planned affordable housing development for seniors called the Weldon along S. Washington Street during your time serving. What was your thinking with that vote?
Webb: That was a very difficult decision to make. And I say that as someone who is a huge supporter of affordable housing. In a perfect world, I would have been supportive of that. But when the shoe was on the other foot, and you’re getting the information from your city manager and your budget folks who are telling you that the money being asked of us is more than we had originally been slated for, it’s going to put us in an awkward situation financially. I had to look at the bigger picture of everything, which was that the decision was being made in the middle of one of the worst financial crises that the country had been through in 2008. We were laying people off and were cutting services left and right. So for me to have voted for something that was potentially going to cost people their jobs, even if it’s something I undoubtedly support on a personal level, I just couldn’t ignore the bigger picture. If I could choose to potentially save someone’s job or potentially help fund the school system, I’m gonna do that, and that’s what I did. Ultimately, I knew that was going to be a vote that was going to be controversial. I will say — that one vote was the one thing that may have cost me reelection to the City Council in 2012. However, I do not sit back and regret that vote at all. Not one bit. And now Falls Church has come roaring back from those economic challenges, so I don’t look back on those tough decisions because it was the right thing to do at the time.
N-P: What were you thinking during that brief period while you were out of politics? Did you contemplate not getting back in, or were you immediately eyeing to get on the school board?
Webb: I was immediately looking to get back in. At first, I thought I was going to run for City Council again. But I changed my mind because my professional world is working in higher education at the college level. I thought I could make a more effective impact in the school world. And in all honesty, I feel I have made that impact after being elected to the school board in 2013.
N-P: In a similar vein to when I asked you about the City Council, what was your greatest accomplishment while serving on the school board?
Webb: I’d say I had two major accomplishments. The first was restoring faith in the school board. When I became school board chair in 2017, residents had lost confidence in the school board and the school system. They were questioning decisions we were making, and in all of my time of being involved in the City’s political world, that just had never happened — especially with the school board. But people were questioning the leadership of our chair and vice chair on the school board, and truth be told, they were probably questioning the superintendent more than anything back then. I believe it was because they were seeing the school board’s budget requests get cut fairly significantly. Even during tough economic times, that had never been the case in Falls Church. So to go from fairly healthy increases during the recession to taking almost a million dollar cut during the economic recovery, that says a lot about the support for the schools at that time. Getting the right fiscal support for the schools again showed how I helped reaffirm that faith in the Falls Church’s schools.
And the second one is the brand new school we’re about to open up. That project had been in the works for the past decade, particularly how we were going to fund it. But being a part of getting the referendum passed to providing input on what the school was going to look like, those were definitely major accomplishments during my time in public office. I just hope we can have a grand opening sometime in January, depending on Covid protocols.
N-P: How do you feel the school board handled the school name change decisions earlier this month?
Webb: I would say we handled that situation as best we could. I will say for myself, that conversation had been talked about several times before it became a formal discussion that was a part of the board’s agenda. And I didn’t want to have that conversation. I knew how controversial it would be. I saw what happened in Fairfax with changing J.E.B. Stuart to Justice High School, and then when Arlington changed Washington-Lee to Washington-Liberty High School, it definitely can show how divided the community is on certain topics. But with all that happened over the summer, I thought that now, we had to at least have that conversation. We should let the people that have their say on it and then we’ll go from there. Personally, I started off as neutral on changing the names. But as time went on, I thought changing the name of George Mason was appropriate but was open to keeping Thomas Jefferson. And then as I did more research on Jefferson’s life, and especially when we received a letter from a citizen who talked about how she took her child out of the school system for a couple of years and sent to private schools because her child was uncomfortable going to a school named after Jefferson, I began to come around to the idea of changing the name. There were other things, too, such as, before my time on the board, the school’s held a colonial day where kids of color were instructed to play certain roles because of the color of their skin versus any other reason. That was a practice that went on for way too long. I have a fundamental disagreement with those who say we are white-washing history, too. Thomas Jefferson will always be a founding father and will be in every history book that’s out there. But bringing more attention to African-American experience in our history is something we should strive for. Changing the names is going to be something that will reverberate throughout the City, especially since it is an election year coming up. I know some folks who will potentially run for school board because of the decision to remove Mason and Jefferson’s names. But at the end of the day, I will defend that decision because it was the right thing to do.
N-P: Do you think the way the board treated the survey added any friction to the name change process?
Webb: Oh, it did, 100 percent. To me, that was expected. From the conversations folks were having with us to the emails and other comments we got on the board, I knew the survey was likely going to be in favor of keeping the names. I was just shocked at the level of disparity that came with the survey — that over a two-to-one margin of people wanted to keep the names. But the bottom line to me is that there’s never a point where it’s acceptable to own someone else. I understand to some degree the main argument made to keep the names — that they were founding fathers, so you’d have to look at them differently because they were a product of their time. And am I going to acknowledge the great things they did to create a country that I fundamentally love? Absolutely. However, it doesn’t change the fact that they mistreated the slaves who were just as foundational in helping physically build parts of this country, including in our nation’s capitol of Washington, D.C.
N-P: Do you think the way the survey was treated by the school board could create some distrust in how it handles the public’s input on decisions going forward?
Webb: I don’t think so, being that the input of the community always plays a role in our decisions. It’s not always taken in survey form like we did with this name change decision, but community input is something that I think is valued in Falls Church and has been in many instances since I’ve been on the board. In particular, what’s going on right now with the pandemic and how to bring students back. I think citizens have had a fairly decent amount of input on that. And we will also be seeking the community’s input for what the new schools should be called. I think the board will continue to take citizen input on things. Will it always be the deciding factor in its decisions? Not necessarily, but the community’s voice adds value to what we do and have done over the years.
N-P: Two-part question on reopening the schools: One, do you think the schools are ready to reopen? And two, how do you think they should go about doing it?
Webb: I think we’re getting there in regards to reopening. I don’t think we’re there right now — with numbers where they are after both the Thanksgiving holiday, and where they could go after we wrap up the Christmas and New Year’s holiday — but I think a plan is in place to actually go to our hybrid model that we had initially planned to do before the numbers kind of exploded. I was a big proponent of bringing back our special needs and English language learner students, which we did in October. But again, as numbers and data started to go the other direction, we had to cut back on that. It’s tough, too, because I know those students needed in-person instruction the most, and sometimes working remotely is not something that works well for them. However, we’re definitely getting there. We just have to look at the data before we make a final call of what we will do. And as for how we reopen, we should be gradually bringing back groups. Starting there again, are the special needs and English language learners first, and then we go into that elementary group, and then going into the middle and high school students. But I still think as of right now, until we get better data and as more people are getting vaccinated, I do think it still needs to be a hybrid where students are not all back in school at one time. I know it’s a tough time for all the students. Personally, I wouldn’t have thrived if I had to go through school purely online. These months since last March when we shut down have been some of the most challenging times that the school board has gone through because we know there’s no right or wrong answer. Some people want to reopen the schools immediately, and others want to stay virtual until the virus threat is all but eradicated. It’s hard to find the middle ground of what’s safe and effective, but I sympathize with the students because I know they want to go back as soon as they can. I couldn’t imagine doing this online myself.
N-P: So what are your plans for the next phase of your life?
Webb: I’m moving to Springfield, in the Saratoga area. It was just a great time for my partner Clifton and I to buy. I’m looking for other opportunities, and I will eventually find ways to get involved in the area. It’s tough right now to do so with the pandemic going on. Thankfully, I do know some of the people in the political establishment in Fairfax County because of my involvement over the years, so that will be helpful. But I don’t see foresee running for elective office soon. I am going to look into potentially finding opportunities on boards and commissions because that’s just who I am. Though I won’t say I’ll never run for elected office again. I just know it will be a little bit down the road because I’ll have to get used to a new community. Being in tight-knit Falls Church for more than a decade, it will take some adjusting.