School district push for more control of WLRN raises concerns about news operation

A view of WLRN’s radio studio in the station’s headquarters next to the Miami-Dade School Board administration building is shown in this Jan. 16, 2007, file photo.
A view of WLRN’s radio studio in the station’s headquarters next to the Miami-Dade School Board administration building is shown in this Jan. 16, 2007, file photo.

The Miami-Dade School Board is quietly pushing for tighter control of WLRN, South Florida’s award-winning public radio and television station, in a move that would allow school administrators to hire and fire its journalists and potentially put its independent news reporting at risk.

The demands — laid out in the draft of a new operating agreement — would force 19 WLRN reporters and editors now employed by an independent nonprofit to reapply for jobs and work directly for the school district. The draft contract also could open the door for the district, which owns WLRN’s operating license, to dictate programming and broadcast content.

The broad implications of the proposal raise a host of red flags, said Dwight Hill, the president of Sabadell United Bank and volunteer chairman of Friends of WLRN, the nonprofit fund-raising arm of the station that bankrolls the popular news operation affiliated with National Public Radio.

“How would these journalists be able to do their job independently if they’re reporting directly to the school district administration?” Hill said. “I’m concerned we’ll lose our donor base and the support from the broader community if this just becomes a regurgitation of the school board and administration agenda.”

School district Chief Communications Officer Daisy Gonzalez-Diego downplayed concerns about administrators influencing news coverage. She insisted that the district’s intention was not to undermine the independence of WLRN’s reporting and pledged the district would not meddle in news decisions, now made by the station’s news director and staff.

As for programming decisions, she said the district would exercise temporary authority during a transition period that would streamline WLRN, eliminating an independent nonprofit called South Florida Public Media that now employs the news staff. Afterward, she said, programming decisions would remain the same as they are now: made by the station’s general manager, John Labonia, who is already a district employee.

“We value WLRN. We know it’s an asset. We know it provides great programming,’’ she said, adding that the district remains able to consult with Labonia on programming changes after the transition. “We want for it to continue doing that.”

Student safety concerns

Gonzalez-Diego said several issues drove the push for a formal operating agreement. No. 1 was student safety, she said, because WLRN’s news staff has not undergone the full criminal background checks required of all public school employees — potentially endangering interns who work at the station’s offices.

The Friends group offered to have all its employees screened to the same standards but that offer, Gonzalez-Diego said, did not go far enough. The district has since suspended the internship program at WLRN, which has its main studios in a district-operated downtown Miami building next to school board headquarters.

“We cannot validate the existence of that entity by having that fingerprinting and those background checks,” Gonzalez-Diego said. “We need to get the operating agreement established before anything else.”

Kelly McBride, a media ethicist and vice president of the Poynter Institute, a respected journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, called the student safety concern a “fairly specious argument.” Many schools operate intern programs without demanding the screening required of public school employees. The Miami-Dade school district, for instance, boasts that it operates intern programs with more than 700 businesses and organizations.

Another concern is that when Friends created the second nonprofit that employs news staffers, South Florida Public Media, the district says it was done without approval by the school board. The affiliate has been mentioned in financial statements to the district. But in a memo to Friends, Gonzalez-Diego indicated that the district only recently found out about the financial arrangement between the nonprofits and said it raised concerns that Friends has exceeded its mission of fund-raising and moved into staffing and operations.

In addition, Gonzalez-Diego said, the district has repeatedly raised concerns about how Friends handles money — most recently, citing irregularities in the group’s financial statements. The nonprofit’s chief financial officer recently tendered his resignation amid scrutiny over his documentation of station revenues. Hill, the group’s chairman, acknowledged problems but said they were administrative and there were no criminal allegations.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and the Friends group have grappled for years over finances, leadership and salaries. Carvalho has publicly criticized Friends’ salaries, calling some of them exorbitant. Reported staff salaries have been significantly reduced, but in 2014, former chief underwriter Michael Peyton’s compensation was listed at close to $400,000 a year — including commissioned sales bonuses — a bigger paycheck than Carvalho earns.

“They have not been transparent in their finances,’’ Gonzalez-Diego said. “They have not operated in good faith.”

Turning into PR operation?

Friends of WLRN defends its track record, and Hill warned that the proposals could undercut community support and undo years of efforts to produce high-level local journalism if they were to meld the news staff into an extension of the district’s already sizable public relations operation.

Labonia, the general manager and current school board employee, declined to comment on the proposals as did news staffers. But Hill, who met Wednesday with the radio news staff to discuss the situation, in an interview called the demands “very restrictive and onerous.”

Beyond giving news staffers 60 days to reapply for jobs that would be subject to school board approval, the 19-page document would compel the nonprofit to release its list of donors and employee salaries — a demand Hill said would not be met. He also ruled out a provision calling for abolishing the nonprofit arm that pays WLRN’s news team.

“That’s an assault on an independent operation that was created to really fund an independent news operation,” he said. The money raised by Friends through listener donations and underwriting pays for WLRN’s local news operation, as well as popular programming purchased from NPR and American Public Media.

The South Florida Public Media nonprofit targeted for elimination by the district was created by Friends in 2006 to provide a firewall to protect the radio station’s newsroom from influence by both the school district and deep-pocketed donors. It also has a news partnership with the Miami Herald, sharing office space with the newspaper staff in Doral in exchange for monthly rent of about $2,000.

WLRN’s radio news staff produces two dozen broadcasts a day, “The Sunshine Economy” news program, the weekly Florida Roundup and other exclusive news reporting. Under the current arrangement, WLRN local news coverage has been honored with multiple state and national awards over the past decade.

The proposed changes could jeopardize the station’s partnership with the Herald, said Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, the Herald’s executive editor. “That relationship is built on the fact that we are both two independent news organizations and if they were now under the auspices of a government entity, I don’t see how we could continue our current relationship.”

Questions about the station’s independence could also harm WLRN’s efforts to win grants and other financial support. Some grants through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for example, come with strict requirements about independence, stipulating that the station’s staff must be overseen by a manager who decides what to broadcast. Losses of grants or donations could force the taxpayer-funded district to increase funding or cut the station’s budget.

Numerous school boards, universities and state government agencies nationwide hold the licenses for public radio stations, relationships that industry experts say can be fraught with complications when it comes to reporting on the license holder. Even if a license holder doesn’t directly order up or spike stories, the power to hire, fire and determine compensation of reporters is clearly a powerful tool for coloring news coverage.

Experts: Firewalls important

Some public radio stations don’t partner with nonprofits like Friends and South Florida Public Media to buffer news reporters and fund-raisers from the license holder. At public radio station KALW in San Francisco, for example, which is licensed by the San Francisco school district, the station is considered a district enterprise and does its own fund-raising. But when it comes to reporting, there is a strict firewall between the station and the school board to “make sure that we’re treated in the same way that any other media organization would be treated,” said station General Manager Matt Martin.

While each station navigates these situations differently, “station programming and editorial staff are typically completely independent of influence from the licensee, and many stations have created and adopted strict ethical guidelines and policies to safeguard that independence,” an NPR spokeswoman said. The Miami-Dade district adopted such a policy intended to give the station’s general manager autonomy to run WLRN — it was put in place after the station chose to air a school board meeting the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks rather than news on the worst act of terrorism in American history. The operating agreement references that editorial policy but also notes that it “may be modified from time to time.”

McBride, the Poynter media ethicist, said public media licenses come with a requirement to “serve the entire community with independent quality news. … That would not happen if they had any type of review over the content or input into the content.”

McBride said the school board’s concerns might be better addressed by seeking a new owner for WLRN. “If they’re not happy with the way the radio station is being run, they should consider finding a license holder who knows a little bit more about journalism and public media,” she said.

Under Carvalho, who has been honored as the nation’s top schools superintendent, the district communication staff closely monitors media coverage, sometimes pushing back against stories deemed negative, slanted or unfair. The communications staff has made late night calls to argue for changes in Herald stories after they are posted online.

In recent months, WLRN has aired stories critical of school district programs, including one that questioned whether the district had followed through on a promise to end out-of-school suspensions, and a high school intern’s piece entitled “Why Is School Lunch Gross?

Carvalho, Gonzalez-Diego said, was unavailable for comment. But she insisted that the school district’s concerns over Friends were not triggered by or related to negative coverage.

“We have never meddled in anything with WLRN,” she said. “We did not realize South Florida Public Media was being funded by Friends, an organization we’ve had a few issues with in the past.”

Unspecified consequences

In the proposed new contract, the district defines the mission of Friends as “supporting the communications programs of the Miami-Dade Public Schools” but does not mention anything about news coverage. WLRN’s mission as defined in the school board’s existing policy is “to provide educational services, information, and entertainment to the South Florida community through the highest quality television and radio programming.”

School board member Perla Tabares Hantman has long pushed for an operating agreement with Friends, saying she was concerned when she learned recently that one had never been signed. “Friends is the fund-raising arm of WLRN so even though it’s separate, it’s really connected to us,” she said. “The school board is responsible for anything that has to do with WLRN television and radio station.”

The latest push for change came on short notice, giving Friends 30 days to sign a complex new agreement or face serious but unspecified “consequences.”

“On its face, [the operating agreement] is unacceptable,” said Hill in an interview Thursday. “They said we had to return it March 2 or face consequences. We responded back that we want to continue negotiations, and we’ve heard nothing from them.”

In a letter to Friends the next day, issued after the Herald inquired about the operating agreement, district attorney Walter Harvey signaled that there might be flexibility on that deadline.

NPR declined to comment on the specifics of WLRN’s dispute with the school district, but Senior Vice President of News Michael Oreskes said NPR is following the negotiations.

“I would hope the trustees of the school system would recognize their own very good statement [in board policy] that the credibility of the programming rests on the public’s trust and it’s important for the public to believe the journalism and other programming is independent,” he said. “The independence of our local journalism across the country is not only something that we value greatly, but something that we want to increase across the country. We’re paying close attention.”