School Internet Program Head Quits %By JEANNINE AVERSA
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The executive in charge of the controversial program to provide schools and libraries with cheap Internet hookups is quitting at the end of the month.
Ira Fishman, who has been chief executive officer of the new Schools and Libraries Corp. since November, said he will be leaving on Aug. 28 for family and personal reasons.
``I felt pretty good about where we were on the program so it seemed like a good break point,″ Fishman said in an interview.
As head of the nonprofit corporation, Fishman was responsible for putting all the people, procedures and systems in place to administer the Internet hookups and other telecommunications services to schools and libraries at a discount, or ``e-rate.″
Kate Moore, the corporation’s chief operating office, will become acting CEO when Fishman leaves. Moore had been chief financial officer of the United Way of America before joining the corporation.
Fishman became a lightning rod for Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and opponents who criticized what they believed to be the program’s bloated bureaucracy.
Fishman’s initial $200,000-a-year salary, which was set by the corporation’s board, was criticized by McCain and other leading telecommunications lawmakers as lavish. In response, the Federal Communications Commission adopted rules that took effect on July 1 barring any Internet program employee from being paid more than $151,000 a year.
But Fishman, who said he was under no pressure to resign, said that the controversy over the program did not drive him to leave.
``The political heat has not been a direct issue,″ he said. ``It obviously has impact on that balance of family life and professional life.″
The FCC, which oversees the corporation, has taken steps to address McCain’s and other critics concerns about the program, including making sure the poorest schools and libraries get discounted hookups first. It also plans to fold the corporation into another existing group overseen by the commission.
``Like every new program, the e-rate has faced numerous challenges throughout its startup period,″ said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. ``Ira has tackled each and every one and made important changes to the program’s implementation based on recommendations by Congress and auditors.″
Still, as new fees pop up on phone bills to pay for that program and other government-mandated subsidies, the program continues to generate criticism.
The program is paid for by fees the FCC imposes on telecommunications companies, which pass them on to customers.
In response to political and consumer pressure, the agency recently cut the amount of money to pay for the cheap hookups by nearly half _ to $1.275 billion for 1998.
Opponents call the fees collected for the program the Gore tax because Vice President Al Gore has pushed hard for a key White House goal of wiring the nation’s classrooms to the Internet by 2000. Congress created the program in a 1996 telecommunications law.
Fishman said he doesn’t have a new job lined up and plans to spend the next few months with his family.
Schools and libraries have not yet received any discounted services through the program, which is in its first year. Some 30,000 applications are pending and no money is expected to be disbursed until the fall.