Standing in a newly constructed reception office, just off the gym, Tonto Basin Principal, Superintendent and all-around staffer Johnny Ketchem is content.
After 13 years, he has accomplished a lot in the small district of roughly 80 K-8 students.
From adding school lunches, bus service, solar panels over the playground equipment, beefing up security and space with a new office, spearheading the construction of the Little Red Schoolhouse to a physical education program and preschool, Ketchem’s impact stretches from the ground up.
But as they say, all things must end.
“I just think it is time for something else, but this is the best job I have ever had,” Ketchem said.
At the end of this school year, Ketchem will retire from his position at Tonto Basin and hand the reins over to a new principal. The school board has tentatively picked a new superintendent and on Friday was in the midst of contract negotiations. School board president Jackie Speer is expected to announce a winner next week.
“After I retire, the first thing I am going to do is to build a garage and workshop,” Ketchem said. “After that I am not sure. Whatever I do I don’t want to be in charge.”
Whoever Tonto Basin’s new superintendent is, they are bound to have an idea of what they are getting involved with.
When Ketchem started as a consulting principal in 1998, he had no idea he would eventually become superintendent, much less stay for more than a decade.
For Ketchem, working in education wasn’t something he had ever planned.
After serving in the U.S. Army from 1964-1967, Ketchem said he didn’t know what he wanted to do. In the service, Ketchem had learned a lot about leadership, especially after coaching a children’s basketball league.
Still unsure what he should do, he took a vocational test. The results suggested he become a teacher.
“So I thought, ‘Hey, I do like kids,’” he said.
Although never a good student himself, Ketchem decided to give it a shot.
After only a few years, Ketchem worked his way up from teacher to administrator using his common sense and positive attitude.
Ketchem’s first teaching job was in 1971 with the Sunnyside School District in Tucson. He taught there 4.5 years before getting an administrative position in Three Points, Ariz. The size of that school district was similar to that of Tonto Basin, he said.
After two years in Three Points, Ketchem moved to Payson and became the principal of Julia Randall Elementary School — only six years after getting his teaching license.
In 1984, the town built Payson Elementary School and Ketchem became principal.
After 21 years, Ketchem retired from the Payson Elementary District.
With a master’s degree in counseling guidance and experience running several schools, Ketchem was hired in Tonto Basin as a part-time school consultant.
At the same time, he held a similar position at Pine-Strawberry Elementary School north of Payson.
Over time, the Tonto Basin school board added things for Ketchem to work on and a 10-hour workweek swelled.
Eventually, teachers asked the school board to hire Ketchem full time and he accepted, becoming the district’s first principal.
Through the years, Ketchem covered nearly every shift at the small school, from bus driver, basketball coach to janitor.
“I do whatever is needed,” he said.
When he arrived, the school ran a basic operation out of a smaller space. It did not have a physical education program, bus service, cafeteria or preschool.
Today, the school has a cafeteria with breakfast and lunch programs in place for a decade.
“The cafeteria staff has done a beautiful job of creating nutritious and exciting menus,” Ketchem said.
In the front of the school, guests and parents used to walk through the gym doors and into a small office to check in with staff. Now, a large reception office greets guests before they enter the school. This allows school staff to monitor who is going in and out. Also out front is the Little Red Schoolhouse, a replica of the area’s original schoolhouse. The new building houses the district’s preschool.
On top of physical changes, the school has undergone a realignment of grade levels to aid in the achievement of the benchmark goals set forth in the Arizona State Standards, with the district never dropping below performing standards, he said.
After 40 years in the business, Ketchem said he is proud to retire without any bitterness.
“I get along great with the school board, parents and kids,” he said.