By Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor
When Sue Ziel returned to her classroom this school year, it was the Romeo Education Association president’s first time setting foot on school district property in 15 months.
She didn’t know how it would feel to come back after spending that time fighting tenure charges her district had brought against her – and winning the case. The Michigan Tenure Commission found her attempted dismissal by Romeo Community Schools was arbitrary and capricious.
Had this dark chapter – which she described as one of the three worst things she’d ever faced in life – destroyed her passion for teaching middle school social studies after 25 years? Could she recover from the mental, emotional and physical health effects and confidently step back into the role she loved?
“Surprisingly I feel like I never left,” she said in an email on Aug. 15, the first day she came back to prepare her classroom. “The moment I stepped in my room, I knew this is where I belong. This is what I was meant to do. This is my calling. Any doubt I had vanished.”
She also had an epiphany: “I knew I was fighting for my union rights and teacher union rights. But it wasn’t until today, spending time in my room & feeling excited about this year, did I realize how much I was fighting for me just as a person & educator. I cannot describe exactly but it is soul filling.”
In an earlier interview, Ziel said she doesn’t hold grudges but telling her story brings back the emotion. “It’s kind of like being rescued and safe with your blanket and hot chocolate. I’m in a good spot now, but reliving it reminds me of how careless people can be with other people’s lives.”
Ziel didn’t know much about unions before starting at Romeo in 1997, she said. She became a building rep early on and has served as president for seven years.
“I grew to love the union because you weren’t alone. I thought, Yes. This is what we do—we fight for the best things for our kids, for our teachers. What’s good for the teachers is good for kids and good for the community.”
Ziel continued in her union leadership role while legal proceedings played out in her tenure case, which stemmed from comments she made privately to members.
In the weeks leading up to a May 10, 2021 school board meeting, Ziel had received warnings from colleagues that a right-wing group – Moms for Liberty – would be coming to Romeo to protest against COVID safety protocols in schools.
At that time, one year into the global pandemic, COVID vaccines had only been available on a limited basis for a short time, and school districts were navigating a difficult road of trying to offer in-person learning while ensuring staff and student safety.
Meanwhile, organized and aggressive groups opposing safety mitigation for COVID had begun disrupting school board meetings in various places across the state. In many cases, a number of protesters would show up who did not live in the district or have children in the schools.
“We were just starting to hear about the kinds of threats that were being made against board members in other places,” Ziel said. “There was a real concern about violence happening.”
Ziel did not attend the meeting but heard accounts from people who did. Dozens in the crowd would not wear masks as required by the district. They booed and heckled the school board president who asked some of them to move to an overflow room – and refused to go.
“I’ve been to board meetings in the past where parents or employees are upset and there’s disagreement, but there was always a certain amount of decorum and respect for the process,” Ziel said. “This was definitely a change.”
Two days later, feeling protective, Ziel wanted to communicate the events to members in an off-the-cuff manner without striking fear. She posted in a private Facebook group open only to members in good standing from her local:
“This is how I picture the next board meeting between the Board & the idiots that turned the meeting into a (poo emoji) show. A group called ‘Moms of liberty’ showed up to stir up trouble. Apparently they were rude and mistook the meeting for a Jerry Springer show. Anti mask & anti vaccine & anti testing for sports. The trifecta of stink’n think’n. They are a virus themselves.”
Soon a screenshot of the post was shared beyond the group, including to a Facebook page – the Romeo Rambler – that has since been taken down by the social media platform. The Rambler posted the screenshot and solicited parent complaints about Ziel to the district.
Five days later the superintendent placed her on paid administrative leave pending an investigation. Initially Ziel was not too concerned, because she has always had effective or highly effective evaluations and a spotless personnel file.
“I know you can’t rely on a private Facebook group being private. But I’m also conscious in that post we don’t bash the district, we don’t bash principals or parents. It was Moms for Liberty; at the time I didn’t know these were actual parents in my district.
“And as a leader, I have a right to share my concerns with membership.”
For several weeks Ziel received hateful and threatening messages that caused her to fear for her safety and install a doorbell video camera.
Late in June – with the support of MEA UniServ Director Beth Pyden – she underwent a five-hour interview by district lawyers looking into “nonsense” complaints, she said. None were validated. Yet officials threatened to fire her over the Facebook post alone if Ziel did not step down voluntarily.
“No teacher in their right mind wants to go through tenure charges, but a true leader doesn’t take a hike because it gets tough,” Ziel said. “If they got rid of me, whoever stepped up next would be quieted, teachers would be quieted. What they did to me they did to my teachers as well.”
For that reason, when MEA Legal Services took on the case, “I literally started crying – just to know the backup came in and justice was on its way.”
In addition to challenging the tenure charges, lawyers for MEA filed Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges and served the district’s school board and administration with a federal lawsuit charging a violation of Ziel’s civil rights under the U.S. Constitution.
The district alleged Ziel communicated with parents in a disrespectful manner, was discourteous to customers and the public, and violated the District’s social media policy.
However, an administrative law judge ruled in Ziel’s favor on all counts, finding that allowing termination of a union president for speech the public does not like would stifle the ability of teachers to freely discuss issues of interest to the union.
The district appealed to the Tenure Commission, which agreed the firing was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Ziel was visiting a relative in Tennessee when she got the call. “It was like a weird, surreal movie moment. Finding out that we won – and my teachers won – was such a relief. I felt like I could breathe again.”
She never could have done it without the support of Pyden and the MEA legal team, and the experience reaffirmed her belief in the power and importance of belonging to a union, she said.
“You always hope to God you won’t find yourself in need of this kind of help from MEA, but if you do – you have a place to go where you can be heard and have people who will fight alongside you. I knew I was in good hands.”
A decision on the ULP is pending, and the federal lawsuit should move forward now that the tenure proceedings are complete, said MEA General Counsel Lisa Harrison.
“The attempt by the Romeo Community Schools to fire its local union president for comments made in a private forum for fellow MEA members is wrong, both under the law governing Sue Ziel’s rights and the chilling effect it attempts to put on educators raising their voices against threats, bullying and intimidation at the local level,” Harrison said. “MEA is fully committed to Ziel’s legal case and to fighting for the rights and the voice of every MEA member.”