For such a dramatic story, Monday’s groundbreaking of Payson High School’s new agriculture building offered decidedly little drama.
But for those who looked, all the good elements of story appeared.
First, the crowd sat before the rickety greenhouse, soon to be torn down to make room for the new $1 million, 12,000-square-foot vocational building that teacher Wendell Stevens fought for throughout his successful career. Also before the old greenhouse, the artist’s rendering depicting the agriculture program’s future rested on a stand in front of the agriculture program’s past.
“We wouldn’t have a program, let alone a
building, if it wasn’t for the strong community support,” said Stevens, who officially retired from his position this year.
Stevens’ hand-picked successor, Jadee Garner, thanked Stevens for allowing her the opportunity to teach at one Arizona’s top agriculture programs — yes, the one right here in Payson. Stevens retired from his post as agriculture teacher this year, but will stay on to fill the conveniently vacated position of career and technical education coordinator, a Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology-funded position.
Garner, fresh-faced and full of youthful enthusiasm, equated the new building to icing on the cake — another great thing besides the great thing of winning her job.
Before the school board agreed to give the agriculture program a building, some feared that a teacher like Garner would never teach in Payson.
In fact, previous PHS Principal Roy Sandoval once predicted the program would die without this building.
In the fall of 2008, a sea of agriculture program supporters filled the old district boardroom and spewed from the entrance, pleading for a building the board wondered if they could ever find money to build.
Stevens had planned to retire in the spring of 2010, and some worried about finding a successor willing to teach an animal science program without room for animals.
Then, in the fall of 2009, the school board approved the new building at a meeting again stuffed with the vocational agriculture supporters who pile into any boardroom where their beloved program is discussed.
Funding for the building comes from NAVIT and also remaining bond money, which the district must spend on capital projects and cannot use for regular expenses like salaries.
The building will consist of an engineered metal building with painted masonry at its base, a raised ridgeline for character, and translucent roof panels for light. It will contain classrooms, a livestock arena and a boarding area for community use.
Stevens has taught the agriculture program for 30 years, winning awards for teaching and earning Payson a reputation as one of the state’s best programs — all without a building. He teaches out of a computer lab, and attends competitions so his students can practice with animals.
Students from other FFA chapters attend competitions to win awards. “I literally took my kids to contests to give them more hands-on experience,” said Stevens in an interview last week.
Last September, he told the school board, “You know folks, we’ve had some success, but if you build this facility, the next teacher will blow my socks off.”
Fast-forward another year, to Monday afternoon. Fresh from the star-studded groundbreaking of the district’s solar panel project, the community gathered again for the triumphant groundbreaking of the agriculture and vocational building.
Garner, the excited teacher some worried would never arrive, took the microphone from Stevens. “I am thrilled to be here,” she announced.
Students in the Future Farmers of America club, likely some of the same students who pleaded for the building for years, stood sweaty but happy in their official blue corduroy FFA jackets.
“None of this — the vision, the reality, would not have been possible were it not for the dedication of Wendell Stevens,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.