Dr. William H. Sell died recently, a great loss to the community.
Back in 1989, I wrote a column about Bill Sell and his legacy to the county as a leader of the Jackson County School System during a very difficult time.
The following is that column reprinted so that newcomers to the county will have a little historical perspective on the man and the tough decisions he made.
Sell – right man at the right time
The Jackson Herald, January 1989
Dr. W.H. Sell, the recently retired chairman of the Jackson County Board of Education, was an unusual public official. He sat on the school board through its most turbulent period and during that time opinions about him ranged from high praise for leadership, to sharp criticism for being “stubborn.”
It is not unusual for public officials to be pulled and tossed by the tides of controversy, but often during Sell’s tenure the waves seemed to have been created from a hurricane. And yet, in the wake of that controversy emerged a restructuring of education in the Jackson County system, a restructuring that continues today.
What made Sell unusual as a public official was his personal apolitical nature. That is not to say he was politically naïve — far from it. He was acutely aware of the political ramifications of every move he and the school board made. On more than one occasion, he played those political cards and won.
But amazingly, he never played those cards for personal political gain. If anything, his actions while in office cost him from a personal standpoint. Political self-preservation never seemed as important to him as did the preservation of a strong, independent county school system.
It is that aspect of Dr. Sell which makes a look at his tenure so compelling.
Sell was appointed to the BOE by the grand jury in March of 1976. Already, public opinion about education in the Jackson County school system was changing. The “old” Jackson County High in West Jackson was in a state of deterioration, both physically and educationally. It had long been given the short end of the county’s educational focus and parents and former students were becoming restless for improvement.
Sell had been appointed by the grand jury as a representative of the West Jackson Area and whatever changes were made to the county high school would fall onto his home turf.
In February 1979, the county BOE made the most important decision in its history — to move the county high school from West Jackson to Jefferson. A 25-year busing contract with Commerce schools had expired and the county board was willing to gamble that by moving to Jefferson, it could pick up a number of those Commerce area students. (The county wanted to enlarge the high school and its course offerings, and the only way it could do that was to attract more students and therefore, more state dollars.)
Dr. Sell supported and pushed the idea, even though it meant moving the school from his “home” district.
A group of Sell’s neighbors were outraged at the decision and even filed suit to stop the move. At one point, Sell appeared before the citizens to explain why he thought the move was necessary, even if it was unpopular. Ultimately, the suit failed and Sell had survived the first of many tests to come.
In 1980, the county BOE took the second biggest step in its history and voted to have legislation introduced which would change the county board of education from being appointed to being elected. The grand jury had previously been appointing the members and the move to an elected board was a pivotal part of Sell’s agenda for “fair representation.”
That is a phrase he would use again and again in the coming years, apparently born of the belief that the county school system had been treated unfairly by the city systems in the past. With an elected BOE, there would be no question as to who “controlled” the board.
In April of 1980, Sell was voted chairman of the school board by his fellow members, a position he would hold until stepping down last month. It was a sign of confidence, but it was also a position which would make him the lightning rod for the board. As chairman, he would often be spokesman for the board and his direct, outspoken style would often play poorly with the two city BOEs with whom he dealt, some teachers, and even with some of his own constituents.
He was not a diplomat, but he was the most respected member of a board that was desperately searching for respect. Through much of the 1970s, the board was third on a ladder of three. It had weak leadership, no direction and frankly, was not widely respected.
As an educator himself, Sell gave much-needed credibility to the board and in the process, acted as political glue within the board itself. Somehow, he managed to bring the fractious board back together and give it a sense of direction. Yet he never really dominated the board and often had to put his personal feelings on hold while acting as its spokesman.
On another level, Sell’s uncompromising, often hard-nosed manner came to symbolize the frustrations and emotions that had been stirred with the creation of the new county high school. From the beginning, the new high school was under attack, constantly being asked to prove itself as it tried to climb out of third-class status. Especially in Commerce, from which the new high school was siphoning off droves of students, the county high school became an object of ridicule and scorn to some. Its quality was often questioned and compared to that of the two city systems, resulting in county parents and students becoming very defensive of the new school.
In 1982, those emotions erupted with the introduction of the McDonald merger bill. Politically, the timing was poor. Supporters of the still-new county high school were looking for a way to lash back at their critics from the cities. The bill, and its defeat, became a rallying point for county school supporters. Ironically, it had the effect of unifying these supporters more than the county BOE could have ever done.
The McDonald bill also raised the “fair representation” issue which had once been at the center of Sell’s education agenda. Early efforts by Sell and his board to have the bill modified were unsuccessful and a perceived lack of “fair representation” became the pivot on which the bill was ultimately defeated.
For Sell and the other county board members, the battle had been a great test of their beliefs on the direction of the county school system. The bill’s defeat elevated both the county school system and the board members to a much stronger status. It earned them a measure of respect and the balance of education was changed forever in the county.
In the fall of 1985, Sell and the county board crossed the last hurdle toward giving the county school system total independence. That fall, court orders which obligated the county system to provide busing for the Jefferson city system were lifted. When the dust had settled, the county system was free to bus all county students to its own schools and it was free to accept into its system any students who wanted to attend.
For Sell and the other board members, it was the final severing of legal ropes which had tied their hands for so many years. At last, the system could begin to look forward instead of backward and could start plans for a new high school facility.
During all of this time, there were countless negotiations with the two city boards and countless minor and major controversies within the county school system itself. But after 1985, Sell and the other board members had weathered the worst of the situation. By then, even the county BOE’s harshest critics had conceded that Sell and his board had turned the county high school around and improved the elementary schools as well.
Of course, the success of all of this cannot be credited to Sell alone. There were many others who played vital roles in the process. Yet Sell was the steady, often tough leader who kept the progress focused and who knitted together a consensus among a diverse and sometimes emotional group.
If Sell has one regret from his tenure, it would probably be that he was never able to put together a plan which led to the merger of the county’s three school systems. His and the county board’s opposition to the McDonald merger bill in the early 1980s earned him the reputation of being against merger.
That was not the case. He was always a proponent of merger, but said he just couldn’t go along with the McDonald plans as written. In fact, Sell still favored merger talks long after his fellow board members had turned totally against such efforts. That his efforts failed to bear fruit would undoubtedly be one of his biggest disappointments.
Overall, how will Sell’s tenure be judged? Consider these thoughts: How many people in political office would have pushed to remove a school from their district in order to better educational opportunity?
How many would have volunteered to change from the cocoon of an appointed position to that of an elected?
How many would serve for 13 years in a public position, yet never attempt to grasp personal political power?
And how many, just when things begin to settle down, would voluntarily step down from a position of leadership and influence?
Yes, Sell was a hard-nosed kind of leader who was impatient with ignorance and empty rhetoric. That sometimes made him unpopular.
But that tough nature was perhaps his greatest asset. He could not be controlled, not by anyone from anywhere. Neither political flattery nor political threats seemed to faze him and that is what made him so effective for his board and his school system.
Sell was the right leader in the right place at the right time. Perhaps, as some would argue, it is now time for a different type of leader in the school system, a leader who would be more PR oriented now that the school system has grown and matured.
I cannot help but believe, however, that Sell’s ability to focus issues, to “shuck right down to the cob,” will be sorely missed.