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Miami-Dade School Board Postpones Vote On Management Of WLRN Radio, TV Stations

Jessica Bakeman
The Miami-Dade County school board is postponing a vote that could lead to the consolidation of all public media in South Florida.

DISCLOSURE: The author of this story is employed by the nonprofit South Florida Public Media, which operates WLRN News and is a subsidiary of Friends of WLRN. The story was edited by a freelance journalist.

The Miami-Dade County School Board’s plan to hire a manager for WLRN radio and television stations is on hold for now.

A key school board committee was scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether to award a new management contract to South Florida PBS, a move that could lead to the consolidation of all public media in the region. The item, however, was pulled from the agenda shortly before the meeting was set to begin.

In a statement, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Chief Communications Officer Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said the district decided to move consideration of the change to a future meeting “to exercise all due diligence.”

The postponement comes one day after the only other applicant, Friends of WLRN, filed a formal objection to the school district’s recommendation that South Florida PBS should be awarded the contract.

Dwight Hill, board chairman of Friends of WLRN, said the nonprofit fundraising arm will submit a detailed complaint within 10 days of filing Tuesday’s objection. He said the organization plans to question South Florida PBS’s qualifications as a bidder and argue the school district’s evaluation of the groups’ proposals was biased, although he declined to offer more details on either claim.

In the statement, Gonzalez-Diego defended the district’s procurement process, calling it “open and transparent.”

A spokesperson for South Florida PBS said it is honored to have been recommended for the job by school district staff and the others who evaluated the proposals.

"We recognize that the matter still needs to be voted on by the Miami-Dade County Public School Board and are thankful for its commitment to provide our community with the highest quality public broadcast service possible," Jeneissy​ Azcuy, vice president of marketing and communications for South Florida PBS, wrote in an emailed statement.

Cost is a chief issue at question. South Florida PBS expects to charge a management fee of up to 5 percent of the assets managed or monthly operating costs, according to its proposal. Friends of WLRN's application does not include plans for a management fee. The school district’s request for proposals stipulated that the final agreement should be cost-neutral.

The school board’s impending decision is the culmination of a nearly three-year conflict over WLRN's management.

The school district owns the broadcast licenses for the radio and television stations, which carry the programming of National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), respectively. It's not unusual for a government entity, particularly an educational institution, to act as the licensee for a public media organization, and those relationships sometimes result in power struggles, particularly over decisions regarding editorial programming and news coverage.
Those conflicts have bubbled up as recently as last month, when several school board members objected to WLRN radio's decision to air live congressional committee hearings regarding the potential impeachment of President Trump instead of a portion of the monthly school board meeting. The board meetings typically air live both on 91.3 FM and WLRN TV’s channel 17, but the radio station has made limited exceptions for breaking news.

While WLRN’s general manager, John Labonia, is a school district employee, some of the stations’ staff members — including the award-winning WLRN News team — work for South Florida Public Media, a subsidiary of Friends of WLRN.

The stations operate under a 2006 editorial integrity policy designed to prevent both the school board and the fundraising arm from interfering in programming decisions. The school board and a community advisory board created the firewall essential to the independence of WLRN News, which produces local and regional reporting and analysis, including on the Miami-Dade school district itself.

In early 2017, Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho's administration moved to ink a new operating agreementwith South Florida Public Media and Friends of WLRN that would have required 19 employees on the news team to reapply for their jobs and work directly for the school district, raising concerns that the independence of the news operation would be compromised.

The move for greater control — which was criticized by Friends of WLRN, community members and other local media organizations as a power grab — followed WLRN news reporters' critical coverage of the school district, including a series of stories questioning the district's implementation of a new policy to eliminate suspensions.

Amid the pushback, the school district slowed its plans, with Carvalho appointing a task force to advise him on how to move forward.

Last summer, the school district solicited proposals from third-party entities to manage the stations. Only Friends of WLRN and South Florida PBS responded to the request. A five-member selection committee including school district leaders, the former publisher of the Miami Herald and a Florida International University journalism professor then evaluated the applications and rated South Florida PBS higher than Friends of WLRN.

South Florida PBS earned 83.8 points, besting Friends of WLRN in the categories of technical qualifications and corporate past performance and key personnel.

Friends of WLRN earned a total of 78.4 points, suffering especially on the corporate past performance and key personnel measure, where the nonprofit earned fairly high scores from most of the task force but got only 5 out of 25 from Gonzalez-Diego, the district’s chief communications officer and a top deputy to Carvalho.

Friends of WLRN’s proposed leadership team included Labonia and other school district employees, although it’s unclear if they would continue to be employed by the district or if they would work for Friends of WLRN under a new arrangement.

Sheila Reinken, the executive director of Friends of WLRN, was appointed by the nonprofit board to the permanent position last week after acting in an interim capacity since February, when then-executive director Michael Jalali resigned.

Reinken has served as chief operating officer and chief financial officer since 2017. She replaced Jorge Perez-Alvarez, who was fired in 2017 for incorrectly reporting the station’s underwriting revenues. Prior to joining WLRN, Reinken held senior leadership roles at Ion Television, Burger King Corp., Winn-Dixie Stores and Levitz Furniture Corp.

Friends of WLRN is expected to appeal the scores in the price consideration category. The nonprofit received less than a perfect score — 24.4 out of 25 points — for meeting the school district’s requirement for a cost-neutral proposal, although the nonprofit does not plan to charge a management fee. Meanwhile, South Florida PBS earned 20.8, despite that it has proposed charging a fee.

Friends of WLRN has also raised concerns about South Florida PBS’s lack of experience running an NPR station. South Florida PBS now operates two public television stations, WPBT in Miami and WXEL in Palm Beach County, but does not have experience leading a public radio news station.

In its own proposal, South Florida PBS called WLRN’s current governance structure “unusual” and questioned its legitimacy as a nonprofit.

“We note, for example, the unusual circumstance where the Friends of WLRN supporting organization appears from public documents reviewed to control WLRN’s operations, including staff employment, fundraising, programming, finances, and reporting,” according to the proposal.

“Not only is this unusual, but those same documents reveal almost no accountability in circumstances where the School Board bears total responsibility and liability as Owner/Licensee," the proposal said. "Perhaps this aggregation of authority with minimal accountability evolved over time for good reasons, but it does not reflect what public media friends’ groups traditionally do, nor does it appear to meet the requirements of a [501(c)3 nonprofit].”

Hill, the Friends of WLRN chair, called the statement “inflammatory and without basis." He said Friends of WLRN “fervently abides” by the editorial integrity policy preventing interference in decisions about programming and news coverage.

The proposal from South Florida PBS includes a pledge to strengthen and expand ethics policies, including the current editorial integrity policy.

More broadly, South Florida PBS wrote in its proposal that the joining of its two television stations, WPBT and WXEL, four years ago demonstrates the benefits of consolidation.

“The 2015 South Florida PBS merger between two previously competitive neighboring stations enabled the pooling of resources and fundraising efforts with a corresponding expansion of community service and dramatic increase in programming, including an entire new 24/7 digital channel dedicated to health and wellness,” the application says.

“This proposal reflects the belief of the leadership of South Florida PBS that its selection as managing entity for WLRN Television and Radio would create yet another meaningful partnership.”

As for staffing concerns, South Florida PBS’s plan states its intentions to “maintain the overall level of employment.”

One editorial change proposed by South Florida PBS would be to produce and air regular health and wellness segments on WLRN radio.

According to the South Florida PBS proposal, the reimagined health coverage would “[connect] listeners with medical and well-being specialists, promoting healthier lifestyle options and allowing them to take more control of their and their family’s health. Segments for radio in both English and Spanish could include live call-in Q&A sessions between listeners and doctors or other healthcare specialists.”

WLRN News has a history of award-winning health news coverage and participates in Health News Florida, a statewide reporting partnership with other public radio news stations. WLRN News is currently in the process of hiring a new, full-time health care reporter.

The Miami-Dade school district did not indicate if or when the school board will consider the applications. Next week’s meeting is the final one scheduled for the year.

Read the proposals from South Florida PBS and Friends of WLRN:

UPDATED: This story has been updated to include additional information and a comment from South Florida PBS.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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