In a near-unanimous decision, the Maine Public Utilities Commission has decided to use the $8 million in overcharges to telephone customers to fund the state’s school computer network for another two years, rather than refund the money to customers.

Committee members agreed that the Schools and Libraries Network had needs that surpassed those of individuals and their specific refunds. Steven Ward, Maine’s public advocate, protested the decision, saying, “Our primary obligation is to represent the ratepayers.” He added, “Here we have the opportunity to pass back to ratepayers some unspent dollars.”

Rep. Thomas Davidson, D-Brunswick, sponsored a bill during the last legislative session to add a half-percent surcharge on public utility bills in order to fund Maine’s school network, but the bill is not scheduled to take effect until 2001. The network was created in 1995 when ratepayers and NYNEX, now part of Bell Atlantic, agreed to dedicate a portion of a proposed rate reduction to pay for school and library internet access.

The state plans to expand the program to include maintenance and upgrades. Cheryl Oakes, a computer teacher at Wells Elementary School, was one of many who agreed that further work is needed in areas such as teacher training and integrating the internet with the curriculum.