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Name as it appears on the ballot: Tara L. Fikes

Age: 58

Party affiliation: Democrat

Campaign website:

Occupation & employer: Retired

Years lived in North Carolina: 56

1.) In your view, what are the most important issues currently facing Durham County? If elected, what would be your top three priorities?

In my view, the most important issues facing Durham County are Education, Workforce Development; Quality of Life Issues particularly in the areas of safety and affordable housing. If elected to office, these would be my top priorities.


Education is important because I believe it is essential to a sound, productive society and it is our responsibility to provide our all children with a sound, educational foundation.  I emphasize all because my biggest concern is that we are not accomplishing that goal.  Unfortunately, too many of our children, many from minority and low-wealth communities, are not achieving at grade level. According to the 2018 Propublica Report, Black and Hispanic students are on average academically three grades behind white students. In the interest of all students being prepared to prosper in the current, robust economy we are experiencing in Durham County we must invest in our public school education system from pre-K to high school to ensure that students are either career or college ready upon graduation. 

Workforce Development

As the County has become a hub for innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship, while being listed as one of the top cities to start a business, the best city for female tech professionals, etc. many businesses have chosen to relocate to Durham County.  These businesses have created many jobs in the community, however, most of these companies are bringing the talent with them rather than utilizing the existing workforce. One of the primary reasons for this is the lack of preparedness in our community to have a trained, local talent pool ready to meet the business needs. Meanwhile, we have local residents who are unemployed or underemployed in our community. Therefore, as Commissioner I would advocate for increasing local employment opportunities by supporting workforce training programs by actively engaging our educational institutions including the universities, community college and public school systems to prepare students and local residents for the employment opportunities anticipated now and in the future. 

Quality of Life 

I believe in any community it is important to always be concerned about the vitality and life of the PEOPLE in the community.  Of course, this can mean focusing on different things at different times for any community but at a basic level there should always be support for programs that that address critical community needs such as housing, physical and mental health, safety, and nutrition that may be necessary to sustain individuals and families.  At this moment in time, specifically, safety would be my top priority in this area.  It is a topic that is discussed in almost every conversation that I have both personal and professional.   Many in our community lament the almost 24/7 news coverage of gun violence last year are actually fearful to execute even their normal, daily routines. Additionally, others are fearful of being robbed or threatened and then others who are fearful of the panhandler on the street corner.  Thus, crime looks different for different people and neighborhoods throughout the county.  Therefore, I believe the issue requires a collaborative, multi-faceted approach.

As Commissioner,  I would encourage the Sheriff and other law enforcement personnel to continue to work with community groups such as Partners Against Crime (PACs) and Bull City United to identify solutions to neighborhood specific crime issues and would thus support investing in  the resources (including additional deputies) necessary to carry out identified strategies. 

2) What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the Board of Commissioners? Please be specific.

My professional experience, academic training and community service make me uniquely qualified to serve as an effective member of the Durham County Board of Commissioners.  

I worked for 30 years in county government, serving for 28 of those years as the Director of Housing and Community Development in Orange County, NC.  During that time I gained extensive knowledge of county government operations, developed and managed several affordable housing programs, projects and initiatives including providing educational material for two successful housing bond referendums in the County.  The position also required preparing and presenting many agenda items to the Board of County Commissioners at their regularly scheduled meetings.   Further, I also worked with many intergovernmental and intragovernmental work groups and provided staff support to many citizen advisory groups and task forces focused on affordable housing. 

Additionally, my formal education has also provided me a thorough knowledge and understanding of the responsibilities and work of a public servant. I hold an undergraduate, graduate and a doctoral degree in public administration from N.C. Central University, NC State University, and the University of Southern California respectively.  I have also completed specialized training from the UNC School of Government, including completion of the Public Executive Leadership Academy.   And, for 20+ years I have served as an adjunct assistant professor/lecturer in local Master of Public Administration (MPA) programs teaching several core courses. 

My engagement in Durham has afforded me a broad perspective on the potential in our community as well as insight regarding the matters of concern to our citizens.  Currently, I am active in the following local and state organizations.  

  • Current Chair, Durham County Board of Social Services  
  • Regional Board Member and Secretary, NC Social Services Board Association 
  • Vice-Chair, Durham Technical Community College Board of Trustees 
  • Trustee, St. Mark A.M.E. Zion Church
  • 1st Vice-President, Lawrence and Artelia Perry Scholarship Fund Board of Directors
  • Board President, Ivy Community Center, Inc.

Lastly, I have completed the NC Institute for Political Leadership ( to further prepare me for elected office.  In summary, I believe my academic, professional and community experiences distinguish me as a candidate who will bring county government knowledge, pertinent skills (research, analytical, budgeting), with a love for the Durham community that has nurtured me over the years.

3) One of Durham County government’s primary responsibilities is school funding. A 2018 report from ProPublica found a wide gap between black and white DPS students in terms of discipline, achievement, and opportunity; it also rated DPS high in segregation. Is there anything the county can or should be doing to combat these issues?

While in the area of education it is the county government’s primary responsibility to provide funding for local public school capital needs and other local instructional support services, it is equally important that the County be “good stewards” of that funding.  Thus, the county should be interested in the performance of the school district and the experiences of the students being taught in the system.  Therefore, the county should be continuously engaged in conversations with the school board regarding establishing an accountability system that provides metrics for assessing the impacts of the local education financial investment.  Ideally, funding provided, particularly for local instructional supports, that may have a bit more flexibility than state and federal funding sources, could be targeted in areas that would directly address closing the gap in terms of discipline, achievement and opportunity.  Similarly, the county could encourage exploring conversations regarding construction, maintenance and re-districting needs in a manner that considers the potential integration/segregation patterns that may result from their decisions.  

4) In your view, what effects have charter schools had on education in Durham? Do you believe they have increased segregation, as critics contend? Or have they offered opportunities to those who would otherwise be trapped in poor-performing schools, as supporters say?

There were 14 charter schools in Durham serving approximately 5,500 students in the 2019-2020 school year.  Charter schools are perceived as providing a choice for parents seeking a better learning environment for their children that allows innovative and creative approaches to learning that match the learning styles and interests of students and their parents.  These charter schools have impacted education in Durham directly by reducing the amount of funding available in the public school system an estimated $200 per pupil per year.  And, prior to the current school year, have been blamed directly for the declining enrollment in the school system. 

To the extent that charter schools have created an opportunity for those “with means” and “suburban” families to acquire a publicly funded education outside of the traditional public education system, it has contributed to the racial and socio-economic imbalance of our public-school system.  However, it is not the sole cause for the increase in segregation patterns in the school district.  Families are also choosing private schools and home schools which also contribute to segregation patterns.  And, in terms of performance, a review of performance scores of both charter schools and public schools do not show marked differences so I am not convinced that the performance is markedly improved but rather the environment might be improved in charter schools since most have minimal distractions.  

5) The City-County Planning Committee is reviewing and considering revisions to the Comprehensive Plan and Uniform Development Code. What sort of changes would you like to see emerge from this review? What is your vision for growth and development throughout Durham?

I would like to see any changes to the Comprehensive Plan and Uniform Development Code ensure that we continue to manage the growth that is occurring in our community daily.  I have heard estimates that range from 20 – 30 new people move to Durham every day.  It is therefore important that we manage growth in a way that ensures that we have sufficient infrastructure in terms of transportation, public schools, clean water supply, clean air, open space in order to protect our quality of life while accommodating growth,  This will also require more attention to zoning classifications in residential and commercial classes as well as attention to lot size guidelines to ensure that we don’t price “ourselves” out of the market. 

Lastly, I continue to want to see residential and commercial development scattered throughout the county instead of clustered in only particular neighborhoods in the area.  For example, there has been extensive development of residential and retail areas in southwest Durham while areas such as East Durham have not developed at the same pace.   Therefore, I think the county should encourage development in areas of the county where revitalization would improve the aesthetics of the neighborhood and prevent the need for excessive automobile travel for necessities.

6) City voters passed a $95 million bond to fund affordable housing efforts last year. What more should county government be doing to further housing affordability? In light of the ongoing crisis at McDougald Terrace, what steps can the county take to assist those living in substandard public housing?

The County recently identified a development partner to redevelop 300 and 500 E Main Street (county owned property) to provide both affordable units along with market rate units with the county not only providing the property but some gap financing as well in order to keep a portion of the units affordable for families at 30% – 50% of area median income. In the future, I think the County will need to consider providing similar funding to developers, perhaps in joint ventures with the City and/or the housing authority to repair and/or construct affordable replacement housing for families of low wealth living in substandard housing that was previously constructed with public dollars. For example, the county and city might consider a joint housing bond referendum for this purpose.

7) With the light-rail plan having collapsed, what do you envision as the future of mass transit in Durham? What initiatives would you like to support? What do you believe to be a viable next step?

I believe the future of mass transit must include a robust rapid bus transit system that serves major employment centers and our universities and community colleges.   I would also support a commuter rail system in the Triangle region to alleviate the massive traffic issues experienced in the area.  It might also be instructive to investigate the provision of a fare free system in Durham as there is in other communities.

I understand there that an update of the Durham County Transit Plan is underway and perhaps that is the formal next step in planning for the future of mass transit in the County.

8) Do you believe the county’s current property tax rate is too high, about right, or too low? If you believe it is too high, what programs would you be willing to cut to bring down taxes? If you believe it is about right, how will you accommodate the growing need for services? If you believe it is too low, what programs or initiatives would you be willing to raise taxes to fund?

I believe the county’s property tax rate is about right, although it is among the highest in the state. I think that in order to accommodate the growing need for services, we must manage growth in a way that ensures that we have a diverse tax base to offset any one sector bearing the majority of the cost burden for services.

9) Property tax hikes can hit lower-income homeowners the hardest, especially those who own homes in gentrifying areas and are already seeing their land valuations rise as well. Is there anything the county can do to make the property-tax system more equitable?

There is not much the county can do to make a fundamentally regressive property tax system more equitable, however, the county can work to be sure the public service delivery system as equitable as we can to ensure that all residents needs are met.

10) Since the 2018 election, the county’s new district attorney and sheriff have adopted reforms aimed at making the criminal justice system more equitable. Sheriff Birkhead has declined to honor ICE detainers, for example, while District Attorney Deberry has mostly ended cash bail. Do you believe these reforms are working for Durham residents?

I believe that Sheriff Birkhead’s decision to not honor ICE detainers is working for Durham residents although he has had to endure quite a bit of pushback from many in the community. After all, America is considered a nation of immigrants and they should be treated as we are in the criminal justice system. Regarding the elimination of cash bail, I am not able to determine whether that reform is working just yet.  It seems there are still more questions than answers.

11) Last year, Durham saw a spike in homicides over 2018. What can the county do to address violent crime in the community? Are there preventative steps the county can or should take with regard to mental health? Are there any innovative programs in place elsewhere in the country that you would like to see implemented here?

My response to the spike in homicides in recent years would be the same as I articulated in my platform regarding addressing safety concerns in the community in number one above.   I think the county has been responsive to state cuts in funding for mental health services over the years by providing more and more local dollars for the provision of mental health services in the general community and in support of restorative justice services in the local criminal justice system.  Unfortunately, I am not aware of any innovative mental health programs in other areas of the country as mental health services continues to be a critical need in most communities.

12) Economic inequality rose significantly in Durham County over the past decade (though it declined somewhat from 2017–18). How can county commissioners address this problem and ensure that the county’s prosperity is more equitable going forward?

The County can continue to promote the provision of a living wage by employers in the county and recruit businesses that are committed to a social corporate responsibility model in support of the societal goals of the community in which they operate.  Those goals include an interest in providing decent wages and engaging in local charitable interests.  The County must also be committed to workforce training to enable our local residents to be able to develop the skills necessary to take advantage of employment opportunities that are made available in the new businesses locating and expanding locally.  Increased skill levels can lead to increases in earned income.

13) Are there any issues not included in this questionnaire that you would like to address?

Not at this time.