School district, keep your hands off WLRN

Miami Herald Editorial Board

It looked for all the world like a brazen power grab. But the object of desire — control of WLRN radio and TV — turned into a hot potato. Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho now says that he never, ever had any intention of taking over the South Florida stations that have such a devoted following that loyal listeners — and donors — threatened revolt.

“The editorial programming, the control and independence that is due journalists, their supervisors, their editors must continue to be fully independent, unfettered by any existing or perceived actions,” Carvalho told the Editorial Board on Thursday.

That is the right answer. That is the only answer — but it needs to be in writing, ink dry and indelible, before that hot potato can be declared officially dropped. His seeking the counsel of a group of local journalism rock stars is a good move. The continued independence of WLRN must be non-negotiable.

That means programming, content and hiring and firing decisions remain the purview of the editors, supervisors and journalists who are most qualified to make them.

It means that current employees, including the 19 stellar editors and reporters at WLRN should not have to resign, then apply to get their jobs back after vetting by the school district — which also means that at no point should they be employees of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which holds the operating license.

It means that when WLRN’s reporters do the occasional story that legitimately casts the public school system in a negative light, School Board members, administrators and Carvalho himself suck it up.

And it means that this provision is eliminated from the proposed operating agreement between the school district and Friends of WLRN, the radio station’s fund-raising arm:

“Friends and, during the [60-day] period of transition, South Florida Public Media shall obtain prior approval from the School Board’s chief communications officer on the following matters: A. all new hires regardless of which entity is funding the salary; B. any agreements, contracts, including, but not limited to, those dealing with licensing, trademarks and logos; C. all purchases and expenditures; D. any programming changes for WLRN TV or radio; and E. any capital improvement projects at WLRN.” It’s a nonstarter.

WLRN is an independent broadcast station and the popular South Florida affiliate of National Public Radio. It also has a news partnership with the Miami Herald, with studios in the newspaper’s Doral headquarters.

Before anybody screams “conflict of interest,” know that the Herald Editorial Board has a long and enduring history of supporting the First Amendment and the freedoms from government interference that it guarantees. The potential loss of WLRN’s independence is simply one more incursion to be swatted down.

As Herald writers Kyra Gurney and David Smiley reported last week, the school district has been looking to keep WLRN on a tighter leash.

There’s bad blood between the school district and Friends of WLRN. There hasn’t been an operating agreement. Friends’ created another entity, South Florida Public Media, which employs the staff, without School Board approval, the district says. In addition, Friends’ CFO misreported the financials in what Carvalho said was a likely bid to bring in more grant money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This, Carvalho told the Editorial Board, could result in fines against the school district.

Both sides must make financial transparency, a clear organizational chart and open lines of communication priorities in any operating agreement.

But a strong, objective and independent media outlet such as WLRN is all that stands between an educated public and one spoon-fed curated press releases. Carvalho has rightly earned a gold star in this nation’s education constellation. We are so glad that he doesn’t plan to do anything to tarnish it.