Plea Made For New Ag-Science Building, Lab

Payson school board hears former students', state officials' views on need for new facility

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Payson High School agriculture students past and present pleaded in vain for the program's future at an overflowing school board meeting Monday night.

The program's current building is condemned and lacks state-required lab space. Even with the inadequate facilities, teacher Wendell Stevens has won awards for the innovative animal science program that attracts 80 to 120 students each year.

A long-range plan asks for a $1 million building complete with an animal science room, bio-tech room, space for feed and tack storage, and a library/meeting room. A new building would carry with it the need for a program aide, $30,000; and extra equipment, $40,000.

However, there is no money. Jim Wojcik, the state supervisor for agricultural education, said beyond the district asking voters to approve a bond, few funding options are available. He said the state has helped pay for buildings and that grants are also available. The state School Facilities Board is broke, and it has put a moratorium on new school construction this fiscal year.

"My high school experience would have been cold and dreary if I had not had that (agriculture) in my life," Jim Sprinkle, of the University of Arizona, told the board. Agriculture classes teach critical thinking and help prepare tomorrow's workforce, he added.

The class "doesn't just teach facts and figures, but teaches them hard work and service," said Payson veterinarian Patti Blackmore. "I currently employ two of Mr. Stevens' students, and they rock."

Another Payson veterinarian, Drew Justice, alerted those present to a shortage of rural veterinarians so critical that Congress has introduced legislation meant to recruit future rural animal doctors.

"If you've eaten today, then agriculture has touched your life," said Lani Hall, a local 4-H agent.

Board chairwoman Viki Holmes apologized to those standing in the back, and those who could see her through the window -- someone earlier had opened the blinds precisely so those outside could see -- saying, "If we knew there were going to be this many of you we would have gotten another place."

The matter was scheduled for information only, and Holmes told those gathered the board was not prepared to commit that evening. "Our high school campus has many needs and this is one of them," she said.

Wojcik told the board he was "bothered" because Payson receives state money for the program, which does not meet all of the required standards.

He said he works with Stevens, who has assured him of the program's proficiency.

"I'm okay with what's going on right now." But Wojcik later added, "that bothers me also that we have a program receiving science credit that doesn't have lab space."

Stevens said he plans to retire in 2010, and that the district will need a new building to attract another teacher. Stevens' students and ex-students worried about finding a teacher of Stevens' caliber if the program has no building.

Almost 30 years ago, the program began with a forestry emphasis, with no students and no classroom. After forestry, Stevens switched to horticulture, trying to find an emphasis to which students would respond. Shortly after, he switched again to animal sciences.

The program has 31 standards it must meet, including animal health, nutrition and working with animals safely. Students now have no place to work with large animals on school grounds.

"Money is going to be an issue," said board member Charles Brown after the meeting. "That is always the bottom line."

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