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Meet the candidate: Michelle Burton

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 profiling each candidate in the race. 

As a school librarian and former teacher’s union president, Michelle Burton has spent much of her life surrounded by teachers and school staff, listening to and standing up for their concerns. Now she wants to bring her advocacy work to the next level by winning a seat on the county commission.

“Many people asked me why not run for school board…I wanted to be in a position where I could really impact policy and funding at a bigger scale,” Burton said. 

School funding will likely be a big issue for the county commissioners this coming year. A Durham Public Schools payroll crisis has recently led to protests, teacher and staff “sickouts” and commotion at school board meetings. In its Feb. 22 meeting, the board approved an 11% raise for classified workers over last year’s pay. The new pay rates — which are less than workers received in October through February — are in place until the end of the school year. A plan for next year’s pay is yet to be figured out. 

The Durham Association of Educators spearheaded many of the recent protests and has advocated for staff pay raises. Burton served as DAE president from 2019 to the summer of 2023. She has been a member of the North Carolina Association of Educators since 1995 and became more active starting in 2013 when the North Carolina General Assembly passed a budget eliminating 5,200 teaching positions and 3,800 teachers assistant positions statewide.

As president of the union, she fought for federal funds to be used to pay retention bonuses for teachers and navigated teacher’s rights during the COVID-19 pandemic. In her last year, she talked extensively with former Superintendent Pascal Mubenga about raises for the school system’s classified workers.

“This was something that was important to me because I knew, talking with my colleagues in the building, how they were not being paid enough to do the work that they were doing,” she said. “I was really happy that the classified pay study went forward…So I didn’t expect to see what happened.” 

Although she supports higher pay, she wants to see what the school board requests from the county before deciding how to assist. 

“DPS needs to present a budget to the commissioners to tell them what they need to help alleviate what has happened. I think it has to start there,” she said. 

“Can we align Durham Public Schools salaries, minimum salaries, with the county government pay, so they’re comparable?” she added.

Although Burton grew up in Chicago, her family history and roots trace back to North Carolina, where her grandmother taught first and second grade in segregated schools. Her father was the first Black student to graduate from UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. 

Burton also had early exposure to unions, as her grandfather was a member of the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, the first all-Black union in the U.S.

Burton has worked in North Carolina schools as a media specialist and librarian for 30 years, most recently at Spring Valley Elementary School in Durham, where she now works. She settled down in Durham while pursuing her master’s in library science at North Carolina Central University after spending four years at UNC-Chapel Hill pursuing a B.A. in speech communication and rhetoric.

Christy Patterson, special education teacher at Carrington Middle School, recalled meeting  Burton in the beginning of her teaching career while signing up for DAE. “As soon as you walked in…Michelle was right there to greet you,” she said. “Being a new teacher, it’s intimidating, I’m nervous…She really just took me under her wing.” 

Burton served on the board of directors for DAE and was a founding board member of the Durham Public Schools Foundation. 

“I do have a unique perspective. I’m a longtime career educator, teacher, librarian. I am a labor organizer and I’m an education activist,” Burton said. 

Besides public school funding, her other policy priorities include affordable housing and public health and wellness. 

She hopes that the county can look at “creative solutions to build affordable housing in Durham County, like looking at county-owned land, Durham Public Schools land,” she said. She also supports tax assistance programs and home-owning initiatives. 

Burton also hopes to expand the HEART program and prioritize working closely with the Department of Social Services and Department of Public Health. “Many of our residents are suffering from mental health issues. They’re suffering from the opioid crisis in Durham, and many of them are not getting the support that they need,” she said. 

Burton also wants to focus on post-secondary education and career preparation initiatives.

Although Burton has never held elected office, she’s eager to lead.

“Michelle knows that she doesn’t possess all the knowledge that it’s gonna take to turn our city into what we need it to be. But she’s willing to learn. As an educator, that’s part of who she is,” said longtime DPS physical education teacher Nisha Watson. 

Burton has been endorsed by INDY Week, the Durham Association of Educators, the People’s Alliance and the Sunrise Movement Durham. 

“I really see running for county commissioner as an extension of the advocacy work and the labor organizing work that I have done,” she said. “This is just the next step.” 

Early voting has already begun and election day on March 5 is approaching.

Audrey Patterson