WLRN supporters give poor grade to school district push for more control of station

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 initial grade is in from supporters and listeners of WLRN on the Miami-Dade school district’s push for tighter control of the award-winning public radio station and its news staff.

It ain’t an A.

“I almost lost my breakfast when I read about the hostile takeover of WLRN by the Miami School Board,” one listener wrote to the Miami Herald’s editorial board. “I, for one, will immediately cancel my [fund-raising] subscription and I encourage all other Friends to do the same.”

Dozens of other WLRN listeners wrote to the station’s fund-raising arm, Friends of WLRN, and to the Miami Herald objecting to a draft operating agreement the district has crafted with broad implications, particularly for 19 radio journalists now employed by an independent non-profit. The contract, which the district had initially demanded be signed by March 2, would force the journalists to reapply for jobs and allow the school district to hire and fire reporters — changes that would potentially put WLRN’s independent news reporting at risk.

That was the biggest red flag for most supporters, many of whom warned they would stop donating to the station if the newsroom loses its independence.

“I will never contribute again to WLRN if this goes through,” said Don Causey, a retired publisher and Coconut Grove resident, in an e-mail to the Herald. Causey recently donated $150 to the station and said he was concerned that if the school district has more control, WLRN would not report on issues that tend to be unpopular among teachers unions and some public school proponents, like charter schools and school vouchers.

“I came around to supporting public radio because I thought it was making an honest effort to understand and explain important local issues. Clearly, that will no longer be the case if the district controls what is said,” he said in an e-mail.

Jeffrey Rothstein, a Broward doctor and longtime WLRN listener, said he was worried about the school district’s ability to hire and fire reporters under the proposed agreement. “In my opinion, the success of the school district in making WLRN reporters, editors and news staff employees, would undermine the credibility of that award-winning news service,” he said in an e-mail.

The school district maintains that it will not meddle in any editorial decisions, and is mainly concerned with financial transparency. More than a decade ago, Friends of WLRN spun off another nonprofit, South Florida Public Media, that pays reporters’ salaries. The district says that was done without formal school board approval and school administrators have for years questioned Friends’ salaries and financial oversight, said Chief Communications Officer Daisy Gonzalez-Diego.

Most recently, Friends misrepresented financial contributions in a federal audit, Gonzalez-Diego said. Friends’ volunteer chairman Dwight Hill acknowledged that problem but said the issue was administrative and has been addressed.

“The value of WLRN to our community is immeasurable,” Gonzalez-Diego said, in response to a question about criticism voiced by WLRN listeners. “The District is thankful for those who recognize this. We continue to negotiate with Friends and are hopeful we can arrive at a mutually beneficial agreement.”

But listeners like Rothstein, who echoed many critics of the district’s proposal, appeared unconvinced. “The school district’s justification for WLRN’s news staff becoming employees is, in my opinion, a disingenuous attempt to control a credible news organization.”

“My decision to continue financial support of WLRN hangs in the balance of how this conflict is resolved,” he said in an e-mail.

Rothstein said he agrees that the school district should receive transparent reports on Friends’ finances. As an annual contributor, Rothstein donated $1,200 to the station last year and said he thinks Friends should make its financial audits easily accessible online for contributors.

The Miami-Dade school board owns the operating licenses for WLRN’s radio and television stations and Friends fund-raises for the station, paying for WLRN’s local news operation and many national programs through listener donations, grants and other underwriting.

Despite the e-mails he has received from listeners, Hill said he is not worried about WLRN’s fund-raising taking a hit. He said Friends will not sign any operating agreement that could jeopardize the station’s independence or hinder fund-raising efforts. “We’re not going to go into an operating agreement that’s going to cause problems in that area,” he said.

Some WLRN listeners suggested in e-mails that the school district sell WLRN’s operating license to a community foundation, or back to the federal government. Richard Brodsky, a Miami lawyer and longtime WLRN listener, proposed creating a trust or nonprofit to buy the station over time from the school board. “It’s not something that could be done overnight, but it’s a better alternative in my opinion than simply reestablishing the dividing line between the school board and WLRN,” he said.

Hill said Friends would support such an effort, but added that this is not what he is currently focused on. “It’s certainly an alternative, but it’s not on my agenda right now,” he said. “We’re trying to work on an agreement.”

After initially giving Friends 30 days to sign the new agreement or face serious but unspecified “consequences,” the school district appeared to be signaling more flexibility on the deadline and on the terms of the operating agreement. Late Tuesday, Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told the Sun Sentinel’s editorial board that the proposed operating agreement was just the district’s opening bid in the negotiations.