A group assembled to advise the Miami-Dade school district in its ongoing dispute with WLRN floated a radical option in an initial meeting on Friday: having the school system sell the license of the award-winning public radio and TV station.
The former journalism executives and good governance advocates convened by Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho met to discuss ways to balance competing interests: Maintaining WLRN’s independence from the school board, which owns the station’s operating license, while also enabling the school board to exercise more oversight of station finances.
In recent weeks, the school district and WLRN’s nonprofit fundraising arm Friends of WLRN have argued over a proposed operating agreement critics say would give the district too much influence over the news operation.
But Charles Dusseau, a former Friends chairman and former Miami-Dade County commissioner, urged the experts to consider something else: divesting the station from the school district.
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“Stations were given to education institutions everywhere and ... in many cases they have been divested to some other kind of entity and that can take different kinds of forms, but the issue is that firewall,” he said, referring to operation rules that separate the station and the license holder. “How strong is that firewall? And is it to the benefit of the School Board to continue to hold this license?”
Any entity, any corporate entity, government entity, will always want to intervene and interfere at some point.
Charles Dusseau, a former Friends of WLRN chairman
If the School Board kept the license, Dusseau said, the group would likely find itself facing the same questions about editorial independence down the road. “Any entity, any corporate entity, government entity, will always want to intervene and interfere at some point in time just because the nature of corporate entities and organizations,” he said.
Some other members of the group signaled a willingness to consider the idea.
“The larger issue here is that we have a problem of separation between church and state and quite honestly the church is going to be the church and state is going to be the state,” said Joe Oglesby, a former Miami Herald editorial page editor. “You can’t merge them.”
Even Carvalho, who has strongly pushed for more oversight of WLRN’s fundraising operation, said he was open to the idea, although he emphasized that the School Board has ultimate authority over any decisions about the station’s license moving forward.
It ought to be one of the considerations out there that the board at some point will entertain and trust me that this is something that we as management have actually considered.
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho
“It ought to be one of the considerations out there that the board at some point will entertain and trust me that this is something that we as management have actually considered,” he said.
Selling the station’s license is an idea also floated by WLRN listeners, who widely criticized the district’s initial proposed operating agreement, which would have forced 19 WLRN reporters and editors now employed by an independent nonprofit to reapply for jobs and work directly for the school district. Some listeners and journalism experts pointed out that WNYC, New York City’s National Public Radio affiliate, was previously owned by the city government and was sold to a foundation in the mid-1990s.
Most of the 90-minute meeting was spent rehashing past disagreements between the school district and Friends, however. Carvalho and former Friends chairman Michael Kreitzer argued over issues that have been central to the ongoing dispute including Friends’ financial misreporting and what critics see as the school district’s efforts to influence news coverage.
Friends’ former chief financial officer recently resigned after it came to light that he had misreported WLRN’s underwriting revenue, which affected the amount of grant funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gave the station. The financial issues have led to an audit by the organization and could result in the station having to refund up to $900,000. At a recent School Board audit committee meeting, discussions over Friends’ finances were heated, with some members suggesting the School Board refer the issue to the state attorney for Miami-Dade County.
Carvalho and Kreitzer also argued over Friends’ decision to create an affiliated nonprofit, South Florida Public Media, which Friends says was intended to serve as a firewall to protect journalists from being influenced by school administrators. Carvalho has argued that the entity was created without the knowledge and approval of the School Board and that having the nonprofit’s employees in a School Board building could potentially expose the district to a host of liability, insurance and safety concerns.
One of the journalism experts, former Herald publisher David Lawrence Jr., said he thinks the journalists could be School Board employees and still maintain their independence.
“If ultimately the School Board is responsible for this, I think everybody needs to be an employee of the school system with the protections in this journalistic world, in this free speech, free press world, with protections to make sure that that is not violated,” he said. “But we ain’t going to create something perfect. We have too many human beings involved.”
Going forward, former Herald publisher Alberto Ibargüen, who is now president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, urged the group to stop reliving past arguments and focus on the station’s future. “If you’re going to offer the license for sale to somebody then you go down one path,” he said. “If you’re going to try to create a separate structure that might realistically provide the safeguards then you go down the other path.”
The group agreed to delve into the two options at its next meeting, the date of which has not yet been set. Along with Oglesby, Lawrence and Ibargüen, the task force includes former U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez, former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Katy Sorenson, Garth Reeves Jr. of the Miami Times and Leonie Hermantin, a Haitian-American activist and education consultant. The task force has no decision-making power, but will advise Carvalho in the recommendations he gives the School Board.