There have been a few firsts in Melanie Bates’ life: first woman in her family to go away to college; first wave of females admitted to the University in the early 1970s; first woman graduate to serve on the alumni board of governors.
There are more. When her kids entered the public school system, Bates sat on the first Cincinnati Public Schools committee to include parents. And last fall, she came in first in a race for a seat on the district’s board of education. But one of her favorites was her first job—first woman bartender on the day shift at Dana Gardens.
Bates, who graduated in 1975, has always been interested in politics. But she’s also interested in education and has found a way to blend the two all the way to the state level.
It began in the mid-1980s when her children were little and she decided to stay home. But during those 10 years, she got fidgety. Her kids—Emma, John and Griffin—were enrolled in the Cincinnati district’s Montessori school nearby, and, she says, “I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I started going to school and found the biggest void was the connection between the schools and the school board.”
So she started attending board meetings and educating herself about the district. She was on a roll. “As a citizen, I could really participate and have an impact on the schools. That started school politics for me.”
As she learned about the bigger issues, she discovered the board did not welcome parents to their planning sessions. It was the time of the Buenger Commission, a panel of local business leaders who were asked by the city to examine the way the school system operates and make recommendations for improvement.
Bates was among a handful of parents appointed to a districtwide committee that explored these reforms, such as ending social promotion and developing academic standards. “It was the first committee that the administration had to actually work with parents,” she says.
Her interest in grassroots politics extended into other areas as well. She was president of her school’s PTA, served on neighborhood civic groups and in area soccer programs. Today she’s the executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.
“It all pointed back to education and politics,” she says. Her first run at the city school board in 1993 ended in defeat. But with encouragement from local leaders, she set her sights on the state board of education—and won. That was 1994. Four years later, she was re-elected. During her seven years on the state board, Bates handled such meaty issues as the DeRolph school funding case, the takeover of the Cleveland City Schools and the launching of controversial voucher and charter school programs.
Says Bates: “I learned a typical soccer mom can impact major national policy.”
She ran for the Cincinnati school board because she wanted to help her own district move forward faster. Her dream: “I want to see kids from any background have a world-class education, and I don’t think we’re that far from it.”
Bates recalls her Jesuit education and its philosophy of service to others as part of the reason why she’s so involved. “What we were really to do with our education was service.”