School district eases off what records show was strong push for more control of WLRN

A sign outside WLRN’s studios.
A sign outside WLRN’s studios.

A small team of top Miami-Dade school district administrators met late last year with an agenda to shape a new “vision” for WLRN, the award-winning public radio and TV station.

There was a telling omission on the guest list, according to newly released documents: anyone who worked at WLRN.

The vision that emerged, first reported by the Miami Herald two weeks ago, could have dramatically expanded district authority over the station and its journalists. Faced with backlash from station supporters and journalism organizations, the district has since back-pedaled on the biggest single threat to the station’s independent reporting — forcing 19 reporters and editors to reapply for jobs and work directly for the district.

Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, in an interview this week with the Herald, said that provision is now off the table. “I recognize that it was harsh. Hindsight is 20-20,” he said. “It’s not language that moving forward I would support.”

He characterized the proposals, spelled out in a draft operating agreement, as simply the opening salvo in a negotiation with Friends of WLRN, the nonprofit that raises money to run the station and pay the news staff.

Carvalho and Chief Communications Officer Daisy Gonzalez-Diego defend the district’s push for a formal contract with Friends. They say the organization has historically been less than transparent about its finances and does not submit all its staffers to the stringent background screening required of school workers. They also insist it was never a goal to dictate news coverage or control programming.

READ MORE: Just how much does the school district contribute to WLRN? It’s unclear

But memos and emails that the district released in response to a public records request suggest administrators had broader ambitions to exert more oversight of on-air content. The records, going back to August, also detailed a series of disagreements, both big and small, between school district administrators and station staffers. There was friction over a district request to interview a corporate donor, criticism of high school intern reports about struggling to finish school and unappetizing lunches and concerns over work that put the district in unflattering light — in Carvalho’s case, literally. One pointed email exchange involved poorly shot videos that left the superintendent, always impeccably tailored, looking “washed out”.

All of this would have been avoided if appropriate notification would have been made to management and the board.

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho

The records also show the district hoped to make drastic changes to South Florida’s National Public Radio affiliate without public input or airing of the plan.

The district gave Friends just 30 days to sign a complex new agreement and Gonzalez-Diego, in a Jan. 31 letter sent with the proposed operating agreement, urged Friends chairman Dwight Hill to keep things hush-hush. “[T]he parties should work toward an immediate resolution free of unnecessary external attention or impact,” she wrote. When the group questioned the proposals and tight deadline, the district’s attorney replied that there could be serious but unspecified “consequences” if the nonprofit failed to sign.

Fights over money

Discord between the Miami-Dade school board, which owns WLRN’s operating license and maintains its downtown studios, and the Friends group is nothing new.

Technically, the two share management of the station, with the district paying for building maintenance and some positions, including the station’s general manager, John Labonia. But under an editorial policy the School Board adopted in 2002 to protect the station from outside influence, the general manager alone is supposed to have final say over programming. Friends acts as the station’s fund-raising arm, securing the underwriting and listener donations that pay for much of that programming. It also pays for the news staff, who are employed by another nonprofit, South Florida Public Media, which was intended to serve as a firewall to protect journalists from being influenced by school administrators or the station’s donors.

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The marriage has, at times, been rocky. The district and Friends have sparred repeatedly over finances and salaries, and school administrators have pushed for an operating agreement with Friends since at least 2010. Money, clearly, is the biggest source of friction. One measure of the difference: The two sides don’t even agree on how much money each contributes to the operation.

But up until late last year, the district never targeted South Florida Public Media. Before 2009, radio reporters had been employees of the Herald. The paper still has a news partnership with WLRN, sharing office space with the radio staff in Doral in exchange for monthly rent of about $2,000 — but no longer pays the staff. The district claims it was unaware that the nonprofit had been paying the journalism bill for seven years — despite having a School Board member on Friends’ board, a 2011 Friends financial record citing the nonprofit and at least one reference to the arrangement in a 2014 Herald story.

The relationship, according to records and interviews, came to light after WLRN aired an August radio story by a high school summer intern who reported he was struggling to finish school after getting kicked out of a magnet program because of low grades. The student, Anthony Espinoza, recounted trying to transfer to his neighborhood public school, which he said refused to admit him, leaving him in a “virtual” on-line school, where he found it difficult to do coursework because he didn’t own a computer.

“I felt like I got put to the side and forgotten about,” Espinoza said in the segment.

The piece drew a call from Gonzalez-Diego to WLRN general manager Labonia, asking about the internship program and how Espinoza had been chosen. Labonia declined to be interviewed for this story. But Gonzalez-Diego’s call led to more questions about who was supervising interns and, the district says, to a surprise discovery: news reporters were working in a school board building but being paid by a nonprofit the board had never approved and had no business relationship with.

That, said Carvalho, could potentially expose the district to a host of liability, insurance and safety concerns. For starters, high school interns were working in a building with news staffers not subjected to the rigorous background checks required of school employees.

“All of this would have been avoided if appropriate notification would have been made to management and the board,” Carvalho said.

Unflattering light

The latest push for an operating agreement gained more urgency in the fall against a backdrop of squabbles between the district and station over content, according to emails, memos and interviews. Several stories that question district actions also were broadcast around this time.

▪  In a September email, Gonzalez-Diego complained about two Youth Radio reports from the summer the station planned to rebroadcast, one on Espinoza’s struggles and another entitled “Why Is School Lunch Gross?” She wrote that the district had not originally been given the opportunity to respond before the stories aired and called Espinoza’s story about being forced into virtual school “inaccurate” — although the district could not explain why because of privacy laws.

“I usually get called for comment BEFORE stories run, not after,” Gonzalez-Diego e-mailed Wilson Sayre, the WLRN reporter who oversaw the interns. “But then again, the stories I usually give comment on are based (as was the case with food story) on something more than a person’s opinion on whether food tastes good or not.” Sayre told the Herald that Youth Radio had previously asked the district for records and information in Espinoza’s case, and for a comment for the school lunch story.

▪  That same month, there was a negative review of the quality of public service and other videos produced by WLRN featuring Carvalho. The harshest came from WLRN’s former director of TV programming and production, who has since died, to a senior TV director. But it reflected views the district had made clear to station management.

“Your work comes in for constant, withering criticism from Daisy [Gonzalez-Diego] and the Superintendent, yet nothing changes,” he wrote to the TV director. “You and I have spent countless hours setting up soft, diffuse lighting eliminate unattractive shadows and hotspots, so it’s not as if you don’t know how to do it.”

“Blaming the whole thing on Mr. Carvalho’s mood just doesn’t cut it,” he continued. “Everyone has good days and bad. The aim here is to make his recording sessions something he looks forward to and from which he departs in a better mood, not a worse one.”

I am beginning to form the unmistakable impression that my job performance and future employment is being judged not by my performance but rather by my unwillingness to violate the Editorial Integrity Policy.

WLRN General Manager John Labonia in a memo to the school district

▪  An October story by WLRN education reporter Rowan Moore Gerety that questioned whether the district had followed through on a promise to end out-of-school suspensions also drew push-back from the district.

▪  The same month, a public relations firm emailed the district’s communications office asking whether WLRN could interview a Chevron spokesperson to promote the oil company’s “Fuel Your School Program,” which donated a dollar to local schools when drivers filled up at Chevron stations.

The district replied that the request would be forwarded to station manager Labonia, who responded, “Did you promise them an interview based on their contributions to the district?”

The district’s public relations director John Schuster assured him no promises had been made. “They asked for an interview during a conference call, because they understand that WLRN is affiliated with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and I offered to see if you could fulfill their request,” Schuster replied, adding that he knew Labonia had to follow journalism guidelines. “You and I have sat through enough budget conferences to know that funding is important, but you can’t always talk about it on the airwaves,” he said.

Labonia refused the request. “I can run some [Public Service Announcements] if someone gets me some scripts, but I can’t interview them,” he wrote.

Under-the-radar meeting

By late October, records show, the district’s push for a formal agreement picked up pace. There were a handful of exchanges about hiring practices and Friends’ relationship with South Florida Public Media. Then, on Nov. 7, a group of administrators — including the school board attorney and heads of communications, finances and human resources — met to talk about every aspect of the station, including a “vision of WLRN.” Also on the agenda: the school board’s editorial policy for WLRN and whether the school district could directly hire reporters.

The meeting was not recorded and no one took any notes, the district said in response to a public records request. Gonzalez-Diego, in an interview, said the intent was to “try to wrap our brains around everything, everything we need to know about WLRN” in light of the district’s concerns about the station’s hiring practices and finances.

A few days later, when Labonia failed to send Gonzalez-Diego, who is his supervisor, employment records for South Florida Public Media, she warned that if he did not produce the documents, it would be “deemed insubordination.”

After meeting with school district administrators in November, Michael Kreitzer, who was then chair of Friends’ board, assured the district that all employees would undergo the same level of background checks as school employees. But the district moved ahead to suspend the internship programs for high school students later that month, citing safety concerns. When Friends e-mailed to get more information about getting employees screened, Gonzalez-Diego responded that because the internship programs had been suspended, “the pressing nature of the screening of [South Florida Public Media] personnel — for the time being — has subsided.”

The following month, Gonzalez-Diego sent a memo ordering WLRN station manager Labonia to get prior approval for any new hires, agreements, purchases and programming changes. That last requirement appears to have set off alarm bells for Labonia.

“While I hope I am not being overly sensitive, I am beginning to form the unmistakable impression that my job performance and future employment is being judged not by my performance but rather by my unwillingness to violate the Editorial Integrity Policy,” he wrote back.

Carvalho and Gonzalez-Diego told the Herald the district was only trying to establish greater oversight of station operations until an operating agreement could be signed — although the memo does not say anything about the measures being temporary.

Then, in January, the district’s push was bolstered with a revelation about Friends’ finances. Hill, the nonprofit’s chairman, told Carvalho that he had recently learned Friends’ chief financial officer had misreported WLRN’s underwriting revenue. The misreporting affected the amount of grant funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gave WLRN and could result in the station having to refund up to $900,000. It has also led to the resignation of Friends’ chief financial officer and to an audit by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Office of Inspector General.

But Friends didn’t bend, with Hill flatly rejecting many of the district’s proposals — starting with turning reporters into school employees. Hill has acknowledged the financial reporting irregularities but calls them administrative problems.

After widespread criticism from WLRN listeners, the district has stepped back to explore options — in a text Carvalho called it “not one of reversal; more refinement that addresses all sides.” In a first step, Carvalho convened a group of journalism experts to help guide negotiations over WLRN’s future and he underlined that any agreement will protect the independence of WLRN journalists. The district will not require journalists to become district employees, Carvalho said, although they want to make sure whatever entity employs WLRN reporters has a legal contract with the school district and stringent screening measures for employees.

Hill said he found the task force proposal promising.

“I think that’s a terrific move,” Hill said. “Those are people that understand the importance of a free press and I’m not sure how we’ll all be working on this, but I’m encouraged and I think that’s a positive step.”

Still, Carvalho considers criticism of the operating agreement’s impacts on journalistic independence overblown — something to distract from serious questions about Friends’ finances. He called it a “war strategy” that was “beautifully deployed.”

Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.

Kyra Gurney: 305-376-3205, @KyraGurney