Schools and Libraries Chief Decides It's Time To Move On

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Sometimes a nice guy--even when he's winning--takes his mitt, and goes home. That's how colleagues of Ira A. Fishman view his resignation last month as the founding CEO of the federal Schools and Libraries Corp.

Mr. Fishman, 40, announced that he was stepping down to spend more time with his wife and two small children, after five years of intense professional life here. He said he had accomplished his primary goal of getting the federal E-rate program off to a good start.

"I always believed that if the program started off well, then it would survive," he said in an interview two days before his Aug. 28 departure.

That's not to say the start-up was smooth. There were technical glitches and confusion among schools, libraries, and businesses over the complex eligibility and application rules for the education-rate discounts on telecommunications services. There was also rampant criticism by some with concerns about the program's funding and scope. And, in June, the Federal Communications Commission slashed the total discount level available under the E-rate.

Still, school and library groups have growing confidence that the basic program has survived this rough passage--more than 30,000 applications were submitted--and they credit the former SLC chief with keeping it on an even keel. The SLC board has tapped Kate L. Moore, who had been the corporation's chief operations officer, to follow Mr. Fishman as acting chief executive officer.

"Ira has done an extraordinary job against a firestorm of odds--not brought about by him, but by Congress," said Anne L. Bryant, a member of the SLC board of directors and the executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

A Challenging Start-Up

By all accounts, Mr. Fishman had an arduous nine months after the SLC hired the telecommunications lawyer as its first employee in November 1997. By the end of January, he had picked a staff of 14 and spent $18 million on outside contractors to bring from nothing to full steam the procedures and tools--including a sophisticated World Wide Web site--to manage tens of thousands of applications from schools and libraries. At the same time, he spearheaded a nationwide information and training campaign.

K.G. Ouye, the chairwoman of the SLC board, said the board had confidence in Mr. Fishman's top-drawer Yale and Harvard background and his knowledge of the E-rate. In the spring of 1996--just weeks after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which led to creation of the E-rate, became law--he moved from the White House staff, where he had served briefly as a lawyer, to the FCC. At the commission, he helped the federal and state regulators and school and library officials who crafted the basic E-rate proposal that the FCC later adopted.

Mr. Fishman said he relished the challenge of bringing schools and libraries into the technological age. "It's a great adventure: taking the two most dynamic segments of society--education and library services and telecommunications--and aligning them," he said.

The adventure generated its share of critics, including Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La., the chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, who wants Congress rather than the FCC to control E-rate funding.

Mr. Fishman is gone "none too soon," said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Rep. Tauzin. He branded the former SLC director "a former Al Gore lackey who has worked for various politicians throughout his career." Mr. Fishman was a volunteer in Mr. Gore's 1987-88 presidential campaign, and the vice president has been a leading E-rate booster.

Rep. Tauzin was one of several members of Congress to question Mr. Fishman's $200,000 salary--which the SLC board set at the midpoint for CEOs of comparable nonprofit organizations. In June, under a congressional directive, the FCC cut his pay to $150,000.

Mr. Fishman accepted the reduction--though he had offered to resign when the salary issue flared up, board members said. But he said in the August interview that the cut was a factor in his decision to leave. "They made their decision, but I had to make my decision," he said.

The low-key executive batted away the suggestion that he should have defended the program and himself more vigorously.

"Maybe I have a weird philosophy," he said. "I really believe I should not be actively involved in policy debates. Even in places where [the SLC operations] have become the issue, we haven't engaged in active political steps. We answered the questions."

FCC Chairman William E. Kennard, in a statement to Education Week, praised Mr. Fishman, saying his "determination, professionalism, good humor, and leadership has ensured that support for connecting classrooms and libraries is well-administered and on its way."

Vol. 18, Issue 1, Page 40

Published in Print: September 9, 1998, as Schools and Libraries Chief Decides It's Time To Move On
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