As Fresno Unified nearly sank, he was brought in to help – twice. Chuck McCully dies at 81

Chuck McCully gets a laugh during his announcement that he is retiring from the Fresno Unified School District after five years of administration.
Chuck McCully gets a laugh during his announcement that he is retiring from the Fresno Unified School District after five years of administration. FRESNO BEE

When Chuck McCully took the reigns of Fresno Unified for the first time in the early 1990s, the district’s future was under question as it faced a multitude of issues. But McCully saw hope.

Joking to a reporter, McCully identified “survival” as his main priority as he took over as interim superintendent of the school district in May 1992. (He got the job permanently months later.)

Amid the district’s worries at the time, McCully first focused on earning the confidence and support of the staff he was now leading after previously serving as superintendent in several other districts in the state and smaller roles at Fresno Unified. His tasks as superintendent included dealing with the district’s million-dollar deficit, administrative turmoil and high enrollment in a time of budget cuts.

Through the district’s desperation, McCully was seen as a quiet “down-to-earth” guiding figure who did a lot to save Fresno Unified not once, but twice.

McCully died May 5 of heart failure at his home in Laguna Woods. He was 81.

His first time around, board trustees unanimously voted McCully in as superintendent during a closed-door meeting months after he was named interim. The second time he served, in 2005 and also with unanimous support, he had been sought by the school board yet again to lead at a critical time on an interim basis.

FUSD faced a state takeover as it managed a $34.9 million deficit for 2005-06. McCully remarked at the time that the situation was worse than when he first took over as superintendent in ‘92. He had the same solution the second time: collaboration.

Former Fresno Unified Interim Superintendent Chuck McCully, left, acknowledges his supporters during a farewell party at the Fresno Unified Education Center on Wednesday afternoon June 22, 2005. DARELL WONG Fresno Bee File Photo

“When it was time to do business, there was no question he demanded everyone’s attention and best effort,” said John Marinovich, retired associate superintendent at Fresno Unified who worked closely with McCully. “I think our community owes a great debt to Chuck McCully’s leadership.”

McCully’s efforts as superintendent kept the district together at times when the community was strongly divided on school issues. Marinovich, who also later served as principal at Fresno and Sunnyside high schools, said McCully navigated the dissension in the community as well as among teachers and also worked on “precarious negotiations” with the teacher’s union.

By the time his second, and shorter, tenure as interim superintendent came to an end in 2005, McCully had negotiated a deal with the teacher’s union that helped get the district on a solid path. Years after leaving Fresno Unified, McCully’s popularity remained. He was recruited in 2009 at Central Unified to be interim chief.

“He was the kind of person that he could not only identify a problem, but he could develop a strategy and with a strong personality he could get things done,” Marinovich said.

McCully also sought authenticity from those he worked with, according to his former public information officer at the school district Linda Estep. “You couldn’t pull a fast one over Chuck,” she said.

Estep served for McCully’s entire first tenure as Fresno Unified superintendent. Aside from getting to know him professionally and personally, she said she got to see firsthand the strength he brought to the job.

“As his term progressed ... things settled down. Some new ideas were put into place. He established networks in the community,” Estep said. “He was an easy guy to talk to.”

He was a playful guy, too, Estep said. While he expected “solid work” from his staff, McCully liked to joke and kid around.

“This guy really knew how to communicate on any level. He could talk to serious adults to playful children,” Estep said.

Charles Edwin ‘Chuck’ McCully

Born: March 1, 1938

Died: May 5, 2019

Hometown: Laguna Woods

Occupation: Retired school superintendent

Survivors: Wife Sonja Sue McCully; daughters Melinda Stark, Stephanie Dorian and Rebecca Chelf; Sisters Sandy Huff and Kelly King and many grandchildren

Services: 10 a.m. Saturday, June 8 at Mariners Chapel, 5001 Newport Coast Drive, Irvine, CA 92603

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is a general assignment reporter at The Fresno Bee. He grew up in Porterville and has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Fresno State. He is a former student editor at the Fresno State and Fresno City College newspapers. His hobbies include reading, sleeping, running and taking care of his dog.