School officials returned to their classrooms for the start of the 1998-99 school year and the news that Ira Fishman, CEO of the Schools and Libraries Corporation had stepped down at the end of August. Fishman cited "family and personal reasons" in a Aug. 13 statement announcing his decision. Kate L. Moore, the chief operating officer of the SLC, took over as acting CEO on August 28.
Fishman's departure was not unexpected. On July 1, the FCC cut his salary by nearly $50,000 to help placate congressional critics. And his job was set to disappear by January, when the SLC will be downgraded to a division of the Universal Service Administrative Company.
Still, Fishman might have been expected to stay on at least long enough to have the satisfaction of distributing the first E-rate funding commitments. But that date kept slipping farther into the future, and the attacks on the CEO never seemed to wane.
Fishman was hired as the SLC's first employee in November 1997, and almost immediately became a lightning rod for critics of the E-rate program. Though generally well-liked and well respected within the educational and library communities and among the program's political supporters, Fishman quickly became a symbol of what congressional critics perceived to be the excesses of the E-rate program. The former FCC special counsel and White House aide left a job as a partner in a major Washington, DC, law firm, Patton & Boggs, to take the helm of the SLC. The SLC board of directors set his salary after soliciting advice from compensation consultants. His salary, set in comparison to private-sector executives running $2.25 billion operations, was still nearly $50,000 more than that of a Cabinet secretary.
While Fishman has remained upbeat and positive about the program's potential, the incessant attacks by members of Congress and the stresses of trying to keep the program on track undoubtedly were taking a toll. At a July congressional hearing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, pointedly asked Fishman to detail his qualifications for the job of SLC CEO. Fishman replied that he had had "a broad range of experience that's relevant," including time as a lawyer representing telecommunications companies, on the staff of the FCC, and in the private sector.
But McCain interrupted and asserted that Fishman had never managed the kind of corporate enterprise that the SLC had turned out to be, and then noted that even with a reduced salary, Fishman would still earn more than the FCC chairman, to whom he was supposed to report.
In recent months, Fishman has repeatedly responded to difficult queries by saying, "That's the question that keeps me up at night"—an answer he supplied when McCain asked when the SLC would finally be ready to distribute its first funding commitments. That date, once expected to be May or June, has been delayed by processing snafus, program changes, and additional audits.
In an interview about 10 days after he stepped down, Fishman said he had derived "enormous satisfaction" from his work at the SLC. He said he had expected the job to be "incredibly challenging—and it was. It was one of the most ambitious startups" ever accomplished, but also "a lot of fun."
Fishman said he had no immediate plans other than to take off two to three months to spend time with his wife and daughters, aged 5 ½ and 3. Asked whether the demands of the SLC job were that much different from the demands of being a partner in a Washington law firm, he replied that "it was substantially different than Patton & Boggs." He added that he "had already put my family through a lot in the past five years."
The impact of Fishman's departure on the E-rate program is difficult to predict. In the short term, it will give congressional critics one less thing to complain about.
Moore's role at the SLC has been more behind the scenes than Fishman's, taking charge of auditing, budgeting and application processing. Although she, too, was required to take a cut from her original $160,000 salary, she probably won't carry the baggage that Fishman did as a former Clinton administration official.