A divided Payson Unified School District (PUSD) board hired Johnny Ketchem as the interim superintendent on a 3-2 vote Friday.
Jim Quinlan and Shirley Dye both voted against hiring Ketchem to run the district until the board can find a permanent superintendent.
Barbara Underwood, Rory Huff and Devin Wala all favored the interim hire to fill in for former Superintendent Ron Hitchcock, after the board spent $58,000 to buy out the balance of Hitchcock’s contract.
Quinlan argued against hiring an interim superintendent to save the district money and allow the board time to find a strong replacement for Hitchcock.
“I still feel in trying to be fiscally responsible that we should go ahead in running our district with the leadership we presently have in place,” he said.
Quinlan has advocated supporting the principals and district office staff since Hitchcock announced his resignation.
On the pro side, Devin Wala led the charge to hire Ketchem.
“Where I am concerned is with the job that is in front of us for the next three months,” he said, “Judging from years previous, it may be a contentious three months. And I would really like to keep our people who are doing such a good job for us out of harm’s way.”
Wala’s comments referred to the last few years when reductions in force and budget cuts have plagued the district with innuendo and strife.
Quinlan said although impressed with the two candidates, Ketchem and Tempe Assistant Superintendent Greg Wyman, he believes the district can get by for the next few months without a superintendent. Quinlan also tried to put to rest the belief that any good superintendent could not start before the summer.
“To have the preface that we wouldn’t be able to get a superintendent on the board until July 1, I believe is a false preface, and I would like to see who is out there,” he said.
Dye originally supported Ketchem, because she said he would happily step aside when the board hired a permanent superintendent and he would volunteer to work on the upcoming override election, but then changed her mind after Director of Student Achievement Brenda Case said the leadership team could run the district without an interim superintendent.
“I think it would be more than a 20 percent addition to our current job, but do I think that we can do it? Yes. Might there be sacrifice? Yes. But it’s for a short-term period of time,” Case said.
Barbara Underwood favored hiring Ketchem, participating by phone. Underwood said she consulted with former superintendents and attorneys who told her it would be in the best interests of the district to have someone at the helm.
“And so with the people I asked, that I truly respect, I feel if I went against that I would be…ask(ing) for advice I would abuse it if I would be going against what I feel is best for our district,” said Underwood, “And so, if we’re looking out at that and we’d be negotiating…a lesser salary, that I feel it would be money well spent to get us to the next step and to move our school in that direction.
She said she supported Ketchem because he “has roots in the community to help us get back…on track of bringing this back to the best district.”
Rory Huff ran the meeting and declined to make any comments except to keep the discussion moving along.
Ketchem has worked in all three Rim Country Districts for most of his 40-year career in education.
After serving in the Army from 1964 – 67, Ketchem took a vocational test to see what direction he might take with a career. The test suggested teaching.
He started in the Sunnyside School District in Tucson and then worked at Three Points, Ariz.
Ketchem moved to the Rim Country in the late 70’s and started working as principal of Julia Randall Elementary.
When the district built Payson Elementary School, he moved there to head it up. After 21 years of in the Payson district, Ketchem retired. His wife, Kathe Ketchem, continued to work for the district. She retired two years ago after serving as principal of Payson High School.
He moved into consulting for the Pine-Strawberry and Tonto Basin schools using his master’s degree in counseling guidance and his experience with schools.
But his part-time work continued to grow in Tonto Basin. He ultimately ended up as a full-time principal and superintendent for the tiny K-8 district.
Tonto Basin resident John Dryer said the Tonto Basin community loved Ketchem. “Johnny did everything right,” said Dryer, “He has a feel for a rural school.” Dryer said Ketchem secured $350,000 from the state school facilities board to completely revamp the school. Dryer also said Ketchem was a “hands on guy” who would do any job from driving a bus, to janitorial, to improving the playground just so he could play with the kids.
“Payson is lucky to get him,” said Dryer.
Ketchem left Tonto Basin in May of 2011. He said at the time he looked forward to building a garage and workshop. Dryer said he believes Ketchem has quite the “man-cave” now.