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WLRN's Fundraising Arm Requests Hearing Before Judge Over 'Irrational' Management Dispute

Jessica Bakeman
Both Friends of WLRN and South Florida PBS submitted proposals to manage WLRN radio and television stations during a recent bidding process.

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 nonprofit that raises money to support WLRN Public Radio and Television has filed a formal protest against the Miami-Dade School Board, after Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and a committee recommended South Florida PBS take over core management duties of its competing public media station.

In the protest filing, Friends of WLRN requests a “formal hearing” before a Division of Administrative Hearings judge to settle the dispute between two of the region's largest public media organizations. 

At stake is the future management of an expanding, award-winning local newsroom that employs reporters from Key West to West Palm Beach, and an award-winning television station.

The protest filing says the committee’s decision recommending management of WLRN be handed over to South Florida PBS — which owns and operates WPBT Channel 2 — is “irrational and otherwise unlawful.”

Miami-Dade Public Schools holds the Federal Communications Commission license to operate WLRN’s radio and television frequencies, and retains key aspects of management of those properties. However, the School Board has in recent years sought a different arrangement, hoping to allow a different entity to manage the station, while continuing to hold the license.

The school district and WLRN’s radio news division butted heads in 2016 and 2017, after one of its reporters did a series of stories critical of the district’s disciplinary policies. In the wake of those reports, the district explored taking over aspects of the station’s news division, but backed off amid a public outcry. 

Currently, WLRN radio and television operations are managed by Miami-Dade County Public Schools employees. Top management positions are held by school district employees. Friends of WLRN raises money and employs the journalists. Station management and the School Board have recently been in agreement that the status quo was undesirable, and that a different management structure was needed. The new media management contract was opened for bidding in July.

Both Friends of WLRN and South Florida PBS submitted proposals to manage WLRN’s radio and television stations during a recent bidding process.

The Friends of WLRN protest also alleges that South Florida PBS’ financial status is subpar, throwing future management of WLRN into question. South Florida PBS is “nonresponsible based on its financial condition,” reads the protest. South Florida PBS disputes that claim.

Included in Friends of WLRN’s protest documents were allegations that South Florida PBS violated a required “Cone of Silence” for the bidding process, meaning that neither party could publicly speak about the proposals. The protest cites a Dec. 2 email sent to South Florida PBS members and donors after the Miami-Dade School Board recommended that it take over WLRN management. The email blast urged recipients to contact elected School Board members to support a forthcoming vote that would cement South Florida PBS as the future management of WLRN, including contact information for the officials. Several recipients did in fact contact the School Board after being prompted by the email, according to the protest.

A key School Board vote, originally scheduled for Dec. 4, was postponed. That and the final vote, originally set for Dec. 11, have now been rescheduled for January.

Asked for comment on the allegations made in the filing, South Florida PBS spokesperson Jenneisy Azcuy said the station is barred from addressing "any specific issues" on the bid "because we are still within the Cone of Silence" established by the School Board's bidding process.

But the station is "honored" to have been recommended for management of WLRN, she added.

South Florida PBS previously said in its original proposal that if it ultimately receives the contract for managing WLRN, it plans to continue operating the radio news department. Other aspects of how a South Florida PBS takeover could affect WLRN’s television station are less clear.

The decision to recommend South Florida PBS take over WLRN management came about through a point scoring process in which South Florida PBS narrowly won. Members of the scoring committee included Miami-Dade Public School employees, along with outside parties including former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence and Florida International University communications professor Lorna Veraldi.

In its protest, Friends of WLRN alleges it lost the bid largely due to “at least one member” of the voting committee “failing to consider” the approach and qualifications of Friends of WLRN.

Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, the chief communications officer of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, was singled out as one voting member of the committee who “changed the outcome of the competition.” Friends of WLRN argued that Gonzalez-Diego grossly overscored South Florida PBS in two of the three criteria areas, in a degree that to which she out of step with fellow scorers.

“If her aberrant scores are eliminated, and none of the other errors are corrected, WLRN Public Media would have scored higher than South Florida PBS,” reads the complaint. 

Gonzalez-Diego said she was unable to comment on the filing, as the school district is operating under the "Cone of Silence" established by the bidding process.

Finally, the protest argues that the bidding process is “irrational and unlawful because it is based on point scores alone.”

The lowest point scores for Friends of WLRN related to "corporate past performance and personnel" criteria. While all five voters gave South Florida PBS the most possible points for the criteria, only two voting members — school district employee Iraida Mendez-Cartaya and FIU professor Veraldi — gave Friends of WLRN the top ranking.

Last year, an audit from the inspector general of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit created and funded by the federal government, found that WLRN significantly overstated the amount of nonfederal funding it received between 2013 and 2015. The discrepancies resulted in more than $700,000 in overpayments from CPB grants, found the audit. That report followed an audit from 2017 that also found Friends of WLRN had long been misreporting its revenues, a revelation which previously resulted in Friends of WLRN firing its former chief financial officer. The federal nonprofit requested a return of the funds WLRN was overpaid.

WLRN general manager John Labonia, a school district employee, stated in 2018 that "significant progress" had been made towards creating more oversight for the fundraising arm's financial reporting.

It is unclear how Labonia's role in the Friends of WLRN bid might have impacted the voting committee's rankings. According to Friends of WLRN's bid for managing the station, some school district employees — like Labonia and WLRN television executive producer Adrienne Kennedy — would retain their current roles. The bid did not include any information about whether those positions would remain funded through the school district, or if they would be newly funded through Friends of WLRN. 
Asked for comment on the protest filing, Friends of WLRN Board of Directors Chairman Dwight Hill stated: "We think the document speaks for itself."

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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