WLRN, Miami-Dade school district move toward an agreement on station’s future

A view of WLRN’s radio studio in the station’s headquarters next to the Miami-Dade School Board administration building on Jan. 16, 2007. The School Board owns WLRN’s operating license, an arrangement that has sparked conflict.
A view of WLRN’s radio studio in the station’s headquarters next to the Miami-Dade School Board administration building on Jan. 16, 2007. The School Board owns WLRN’s operating license, an arrangement that has sparked conflict.

After months of discussion, the Miami-Dade school district and the public radio station whose license it owns could finally be closing in on a deal intended to resolve a long-running rift that became public after a controversial bid by school administrators for tighter control of WLRN’s award-winning news operation.

The specifics aren’t clear yet, but the marching orders for a group of journalism and good governance experts was to iron out a plan that would preserve the news staff’s independence, which was at risk when the district floated a proposal that would give administrators the right to hire and fire reporters. The district, for its part, has sought stronger financial oversight of the station’s nonprofit fund-raising arm.

On Tuesday, the group — appointed by schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho after backlash from WLRN listeners — will weigh at least three potential approaches. One would create a new independent nonprofit to run station operations, another would tweak the existing agreement and a third would call on the district to sell WLRN’s operating license altogether.

“It’s still kind of up in the air,” said Katy Sorenson, a panelist and former Miami-Dade County Commissioner. Sorenson said she was open to considering all three options, but thought the School Board was unlikely to support selling the license. “I want to find a solution everyone feels comfortable with,” she said.

Although the seven-member task force has no decision-making power, Carvalho will consider their advice in making his own recommendation to the School Board, said district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego. The School Board is expected to vote on a proposal in January that will determine WLRN’s future.

Roberto Martinez, another panelist and former U.S. Attorney, said he favored tweaking the current arrangement, in which the school district has considerable authority over the station. For instance, the district can hire and fire the station’s general manager, the program director and many of the TV employees.

“I think the School Board needs to maintain its control of the operations and the finances since it is the one that is going to be held legally and financially accountable for what happens there,” Martinez said. He added that he would defer to the journalism experts on the panel in deciding whether the current policy that protects the independence of WLRN’s reporting needs to be strengthened.

The other panelists either declined to comment or could not be reached. In addition to Sorenson and Martinez, the group includes former Miami Herald publishers Alberto Ibargüen and David Lawrence Jr., former Herald editorial page editor Joe Oglesby, Garth Reeves Jr. of the Miami Times and Leonie Hermantin, a Haitian-American activist and education consultant.

Friends of WLRN, the station’s fund-raising arm, is pushing for the creation of an independent nonprofit to run station operations. Friends wrote a proposal detailing how the arrangement would work and shared it with school district officials.

Under the proposal, the School Board would retain ownership of the license and continue to make money by leasing the excess frequency capacity to telecommunications companies. But the school district would no longer contribute to station salaries or other expenses and would not have authority over station employees.

“The goal here is to try to build something that works for the community,” said Dwight Hill, Friends’ volunteer chairman. “We had some conflicts back at the beginning of this year and I really believe we’ve built a more constructive framework.”

Gonzalez-Diego said Carvalho “would be supportive” of creating an independent nonprofit to run the station, with School Board approval. The nonprofit would have to guarantee WLRN’s journalistic independence, abide by laws and regulations and be fiscally responsible, she said in an e-mail.

Financial oversight has been a major point of contention between WLRN and the school district. In the past, Carvalho has publicly criticized Friends’ salaries and questioned their fiscal management.

Earlier this year, Friends’ chief financial officer 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. WLRN now has to refund $1.1 million and may face additional fines, according to an audit report. Although the School Board, as license holder, could be held liable, Friends has agreed to pick up the tab.

But finances aren’t the only source of conflict.

Earlier this year, the school district tried to pressure Friends and an affiliated nonprofit into signing an operating agreement that would have forced 19 WLRN reporters and editors now employed by the nonprofit to reapply for their jobs and work directly for the district. The agreement also would have opened the door for the district to dictate programming and broadcast content.

After public pressure, Carvalho backed off the hiring provision, saying it had simply been the opening salvo in negotiations, and vowed to seek the advice of journalism experts in drafting a new agreement. The journalism panel, which Carvalho convened in February, has since met several times to discuss the best path forward.

District officials insisted that they were not interested in dictating news coverage or programming and said the push for a new operating agreement had been prompted by a lack of transparency from Friends about its finances and by safety concerns. Although high school interns worked at the station’s offices, not all employees had undergone the stringent background screening required of school workers. Friends has since subjected all of its employees to the screening, Hill said.

Other steps have been taken to improve the relationship between the two entities while they work out a long-term solution. Friends has signed an interim facilities use agreement with the school district and they are discussing a contract for fund-raising services.

Both sides expressed optimism that a long-term solution can be found.

“We are hopeful that through continued dialogue with Friends, we will come to an amicable resolution regarding WLRN, one that allows for the preservation and success of this community asset,” said Gonzalez-Diego.