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Meet the candidate: Mike Lee

Editors’ Note: Eleven candidates — all Democrats — are vying for five seats on the Durham County Board of Commissioners in the March 5 election. No Republicans or Libertarians have entered the contest, so the March 5 results will determine who sits on the commission. The 9th Street Journal is speaking with each candidate in the race. In coming days, we’ll bring you profiles of all 11 candidates. 

As a school board member and businessman, Mike Lee developed a knack for budgeting. Now he wants to bring that combination of experience to the Durham County Board of Commissioners, where he’s running for one of five seats.

“My relationships with DPS are really important and my experience working with the DPS budget and its nuances, I think that’s gonna be really important moving forward,” he said.

The Bull City has been mired in conflict since early January when Durham Public Schools informed 1,300 classified staff members they were overpaid due to an accounting error. Teachers and staff participated in protests and walkouts after learning the pay raises would be revoked, causing school closures across the city and prompting the superintendent to resign. Lee watched the developments with sadness, noting the superintendent’s many academic achievements.

“It is really disappointing, and I hate to see him resign,” he said.

And as for the money?

“I don’t believe DPS has the funds to maintain the raises,” Lee said. “I just don’t think the money is there.”

“I think — and as a county commissioner something I would advocate for — Durham Public Schools classified staff should be on the same [salary] schedule as county staff that have the same role,” he added. 

Lee served eight years on the DPS board, four of them as chair and two as vice chair. A customer success executive at Avalara, a tax software company, with a doctorate in business administration, he’s spent 27 years working in software development and customer relations. 

Lee brought his business expertise to the school board, where he advocated for budget transparency and “evaluative budgeting,” encouraging DPS to measure the outcomes of its discretionary spending programs. He believes that only those programs with tangible, positive results should continue to receive funding — and he hopes to bring the same logic to the Board of County Commissioners.  

“Now I have even more experience in business and investing and technology and finance and things like that,” he said. “I think that that type of experience would be very beneficial on the Board of County Commissioners, just like it was on the school board.”

While chairman of the DPS board, Lee helped stave off a state takeover of two underperforming Durham schools, Lakewood and Glenn elementary schools

“Mike really galvanized our community and worked with the Durham Association of Educators and worked with the parents and families and teachers of the two schools,” said Natalie Beyer, a DPS board member who worked with Lee during his school board tenure. “Lakewood and Glenn elementary over time have proved to be doing better than any of the schools like in Robeson County that went under state takeover.”

Aside from educational policy, Lee is passionate about affordable housing and transit reform. As commissioner, he hopes to use existing transportation infrastructure to cut costs while reducing traffic and congestion. 

“The whole light rail kind of fell through, but I think there’s still a need for those kinds of ideas,” he said. “There are other programs that can use our existing infrastructure like bus rapid transit. We can expand out the road a little bit for the bus lanes to give buses priority.”

Outside of work and politics, Lee is a father with three children in Durham Public Schools. He served on the YMCA board for seven years and coaches soccer at Lucas Middle School, where his youngest son plays on the team. He’s also served on the Hillandale Sports Association bboard as treasurer for 11 years, where he coaches basketball, baseball and soccer. Beyond sports, he was the drum major in his university’s marching band and has even dabbled in filmmaking. 

“He’s like a renaissance man,” Beyer said. 

Armed with endorsements from the Durham Association of Educators, the Durham People’s Alliance and INDY Week, Lee doesn’t underestimate the challenges of being a commissioner.

“Governing is hard; it’s a full contact sport, and you can see that at the school board meetings,” he said. “It is tough. And there are a lot of things I think people that have never governed before may not expect, especially at this level, at the county commissioner level.” 

“I think we’re gonna need someone to hit the ground running on day one, to be able to contribute, and I think I’m that person.”

Early voting continues through March 2 ahead of the election on March 5.

Above: Photo of Mike Lee by Abigail Bromberger — The 9th Street Journal