Support Local Journalism


What about the inflatable Raptor?

Erica Schnee, principal of Bozeman’s new Gallatin High School, laughed when she raised the topic to the guy in charge of school buildings, Todd Swinehart, as they huddled in Bozeman High’s Berg Library.

They meet weekly to go over hundreds of details and decisions that go into building Bozeman’s second school from scratch.

Swinehart is responsible for working with the contractors constructing the $91 million school. Schnee is responsible for everything that will go on inside.

“There’s a lot of concern” about the inflatable Raptor, Schnee said. Gallatin High football players will want to race out into Van Winkle Stadium through a giant inflatable dinosaur mascot — just like Bozeman High’s football team runs out through a giant inflatable Hawk.

The Hawks’ football coach told her his team’s inflatable cost about $6,000. Should she ask Gallatin High boosters about raising the money? Or should it be added to the school district’s $3 million list of taxpayer-financed furnishings and equipment, to make the two schools equitable?

No, Swinehart replied, Hawk Boosters paid for their inflatable.

It takes more than bricks, glass and concrete to make a high school. It takes people — kids, teachers, staff members and parents. Academics and athletics. Clubs and culture. Traditions and pride. Mascots.

Schnee has 1,067 tasks listed in her computer’s project management tool — everything from staffing to garbage cans, bus routes to training. So far 68% of the tasks are complete. Meanwhile, the construction side is 85% complete, on track to hand over the building to the school district by June.

Schnee, 45, seems uniquely well suited to tackle this job, which she describes as chief organizer. She sees her role as “the hub of a wheel,” communicating with teachers, students, administrators, parents and school board trustees. And she has to keep everything rolling forward.

A hometown girl and one-time Bozeman High student body president, Schnee has traveled the world, learned about education methods from India to Brazil to Germany, earned a National Board Certified Teacher designation and been honored as Montana’s 2018 assistant principal of the year.

“I definitely always wanted to be a teacher,” Schnee said. “Mostly because I love people and working with people.

“I care a lot about education … and what’s right for kids,” she said, “making sure they feel valued and heard.”

Schnee is good at working with people and staying organized. If she has super powers, they are her bright smile and her spreadsheets.

“I have spreadsheets for everything,” Schnee said.

Spreadsheets for room numbers and phones, spreadsheets for courses, for furniture orders, for athletic equipment, for the hiring process. A sticker on her water bottle says “The answer is always a spread sheet.”

“I give her a lot of credit,” Swinehart says. “She is incredibly detail-oriented. No stone unturned kind of thing.”

Andy Willett, Bozeman School Board chair, called Schnee task-driven, proactive, kid-oriented, enthusiastic and someone who communicates well with the administration and community.

“She’s doing a fantastic job,” Willett said. “She’s got a very positive attitude. She seems to get along with everybody. She’s always in a good mood.”

The city took a big leap of faith in 2017 when voters overwhelmingly approved a $125 million bond issue, the largest public debt ever passed in Gallatin County.

The public agreed that Bozeman High, the state’s largest high school, had become too big and it was time to build a second high school.

The community entrusted school officials with enough money to build it and also give Bozeman High major improvements, aiming to create two schools that people could be proud of, to avoid creating have and have-not schools, desirable and undesirable sides of town. Two smaller schools are expected to offer students more chances to be leaders, to join varsity teams, to shine.

There will be growing pains and rough spots, Willett predicted.

“Expectations are super high. They should be,” he said. “It’s a lot of money, a lot of community support. We want to make the community proud.

“I think we’re going to have two fantastic high schools.”

One Bozeman

This year Lily MacFarlane and Reese Covington are both Bozeman High sophomores, both 15, both members of the huge cross country team — about 100 student runners.

Next fall when Bozeman High’s student body splits in two, Covington will stay and MacFarlane will join the first class at Gallatin High.

“I’ve got mixed emotions,” Covington said. “Our school is really big. It’s going to be sad to split because my friends are going different places.”

It will be nice to have more space and more opportunities to join varsity teams, MacFarlane said.

But the students have heard of towns where high schools became bitter rivals, and Bozeman students don’t want that to happen here, Covington said. “They’re all hoping to see the schools not become super big rivals — not become enemies.”

“I think it’s really important,” MacFarlane agreed. “It seems unnecessary that half should hate the other half.”

Schnee said it’s important to her to foster the feeling of “One Bozeman.”

“It’s partly why I applied for the job,” she said. “It’s better for the community to remain united. We can have a friendly rivalry… Overall, we’re better together.”

She and Bozeman High Principal Dan Mills and Student Council leaders have been looking for ways the two schools can work together. They’ve discussed holding joint fall celebrations, a joint service day, maybe a joint prom and graduation party.

Some things will be lost when the school splits. If fewer than 20 students signed up for an elective class, it probably won’t be offered next year.

But teachers have been pitching in to make more options possible, she said. Not enough students signed up to offer upper-level engineering classes, for example, so the teacher will conduct a multi-level class so more students can take those classes. Similar things have happened in metals and French 3 and 4.

Ninety-six percent of teachers ended up at the school they asked for, she said. Gallatin High will start with a staff of about 65 teachers and probably 10 will have to go back and forth teaching at both schools next year. As enrollments grow, it should be easier to offer more full-time jobs teaching electives and have fewer traveling teachers.

Both high schools will offer the same quality education that Bozeman High has been known for, Schnee said. Both schools will offer the same curriculum and have the same graduation requirements.

“Bozeman High is really well known by college admission officers,” she said. “We want to be sure they know we offer the same courses, we also have tons of clubs and service organizations. We’re setting students up for success.”

Growing up as a Bozeman Hawk and working at Bozeman High for 14 years as a teacher and assistant principal, Schnee sees a lot of qualities she hopes to keep at the new school — like the opportunity for students to explore a lot of electives and a welcoming attitude.

“It doesn’t matter if you have blue hair or purple hair, you’re in the Soup Club or rodeo, there’s a place for you at Bozeman High,” she said. “We want to be sure to keep that openness at Gallatin High.”

She added she hopes that in a smaller campus, “we can make sure everyone feels connected.”

Shoeshine kid

Erica Schnee grew up in the shoe store her parents founded in downtown Bozeman.

She remembers when Albertson’s shopping center marked the west edge of town, and 19th Avenue ended at Durston in a dirt road.

The oldest of three kids, she was 10 or 12 when she earned $3 an hour stamping catalogs for the store. She had to put $2 in savings.

“I always worked in the store, all through high school and college,” she said. “I still love to shine people’s shoes.”

Her parents sold the store in 2006, but she’s still proud of the business they built.

Attending Bozeman High from 1989 to 1992, Schnee was active in Student Council, Model UN, Business Professionals of America and Key Club. At Montana State University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree, she was in the dance company.

At MSU she had two international travel experiences. She joined the Up With People singing troupe and performed all over the U.S. and in 22 different countries. She also joined Semester at Sea, a global educational cruise, and got to visit many less developed countries.

“It shaped me as a person and shaped my desire to teach social studies,” she said.

Schnee taught for eight years in the Denver area, earned a master’s degree in school administration from the University of Phoenix, and returned in 2006 to teach at Bozeman High. Later she became one of three assistant principals.

Schnee said she and her partner, Michael Wallner, a newly elected Bozeman city commissioner, have been together seven years. They’re not married, she said, adding with a smile that they’re not too worried about it. They have no kids but love animals. She still hasn’t cleaned the nose prints off the back window left by her late dog, Kibo.

She has taught workshops in India and traveled to Germany to learn how they teach foreign languages.

Schnee’s biggest claim to fame may have come in 2017 when she posted on Facebook her video of a mother mallard and 10 ducklings — waddling through Bozeman High’s hallways from the school courtyard to Mandeville Creek. It went viral on Facebook and was seen by more than 250,000 people.


As her meeting with Swinehart ended, Schnee grabbed her backpack, gave herself a quick blood-sugar check for her diabetes, and gathered up her laptop for her next appointment.

This time she was meeting with future Gallatin High parents, who have already formed Parents Advisory Council.

“I’m so excited to work with all of you,” Schnee said, as she handed out bags and stickers with the Gallatin High Raptor logo.

She showed parents a steel Raptor sculpture, a mockup for a larger version that could be built for the new school’s entry. Would parents be interested in raising money for it, she asked. The parents seemed excited and whipped out their smart phones to photograph the mockup.

The moms asked her about food trucks at the new high school. Students are used to leaving the Bozeman High campus for lunch, they said, yet Gallatin High won’t have restaurants nearby.

Schnee replied that Annie Street will be a city street running through the school campus, and while the school hopes students will use the cafeteria, it’s true that food trucks could show up. Both high schools will have open campuses, she said.

“We’re really excited, my kids are really excited,” said PAC President Kim Sacry, who will have a son and daughter at Gallatin High next year.

Schnee has been doing an awesome job, Sacry said. “She’s great. I love her energy. She’s so excited to hear new ideas.”

Tours of the new school will be offered to students and the public next month, Schnee said. On April 3, ninth- and 10th-graders can tour the school from 2 to 4 p.m. On April 4, a Saturday, the whole community is invited to an open house from noon to 2 p.m.

“I get excited every time I go over there,” Schnee said. “I see the progress and think about all the opportunities in the new spaces.

“It’s pretty amazing.”

Wendy Tage, a School Board trustee who campaigned for the bond issue to build the second high school, wrote in an email that Schnee is doing an “exceptional” job, accomplishing all the tasks that have to be completed.

Tage said she thinks the new school will meet expectations, but money will be tight. The state provides zero additional dollars to hire people and run the schools, even when a second high school opens.

That’s why a special transition levy will be put to voters on the May ballot, asking essentially to put tax money left over from construction toward operating costs in the first few years.

“Even with that I think this community is going to be very proud of their decision to move to two high schools,” Tage wrote. “This is a historic time for Bozeman and (the public) should be excited and look forward at the opportunity for positive changes. I know Erica is!”

Support Local Journalism

To see what else is happening in Gallatin County subscribe to the online paper.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.