Soon Payson High School agriculture teacher Wendell Stevens won’t have to sneak dogs into the computer-crowded room where he now teaches animal science.
The Payson Unified School District board Monday night unanimously agreed to move forward with an approximately $1.2-million vocational building, and is seeking architectural bids and compiling cost estimates for equipment.
“This is kind of neat because, in 30 years, this is as close as I’ve gotten to a building,” Stevens said after supporters spoke to the board. Although Stevens teaches students how to raise healthy animals, he resorts to using videos because he has no room for real animals.
He has brought large dogs into the classroom, but “I can’t sneak a horse or a cow past Mr. Sandoval,” Stevens said about PHS principal Roy Sandoval.
Stevens, who has won awards and attracted 120 students this year to his program despite space limitations, at one point pounded his hand on the podium as he told the board a covered, multi-use arena was integral to the overall plan.
“How do you really feel about it?” asked board member Rory Huff, who supported the project.
About 20 supporters in the audience cheered heartily, some with tears in their eyes, after the board’s vote. Advocates say agriculture teaches them life skills like responsibility and perseverance, as well as career skills.
The new building will include space to learn wood and metal, which is required for animal science, and allow room for more projects and experimentation. Stevens hopes to strengthen community partnerships with high school rodeo, 4-H and the community college.
“You know folks, we’ve had some success, but if you build this facility, the next teacher will blow my socks off,” Stevens said.
Available funding has fallen short despite district support of a new vocational building. In September, agriculture students showed up en masse to plead for a new building. The board at that time was supportive, but members wondered where they would ever find money for such an expensive project.
On Monday, Huff asked Sandoval if spending a chunk of remaining bond money on the new building represented the best use.
“We’ve got to have this facility,” Sandoval answered. “If this doesn’t happen, this program’s done, and we can’t afford to let it die.”
Stevens is set to retire soon, and district officials worried about replacing him without sufficient facilities.
Superintendent Casey O’Brien said a new vocational building became financially feasible after the board voted in March to abstain from spending $2 million on fake grass for the high school sports fields.
Funding from the Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology (NAVIT) will supply the bulk of necessary funding, with roughly $500,000 coming from leftover bond money. NAVIT funding could also help buy supplies for the building.
About $2.2 million in bond money remains, which the district will also use for repairs and other needs around the district.
Stevens said he can’t teach several of the program’s required standards, including animal health, nutrition and safety, without space for large animals.
Supporters promoted the myriad possibilities a new building could offer, including hosting statewide events, the chance to raise money for college by raising and selling animals, and learning about career opportunities.
Local veterinarian Patti Blackmore called veterinarian medicine “recession proof,” and said her business has grown 30 percent during the past year while other businesses have folded. Agriculture offers skills in other rising fields like physical therapy for animals, she said.
Blackmore’s pitch involved a pole barn for $850,000.
Board member Matt Van Camp told Blackmore that the agriculture program matched the district’s goals, and he didn’t want them to cut corners. “Spend every dime,” he said of the $1.2 million available.