One of only two schools in Maine that trains vet techs is struggling to emerge from tough times.

The University of Maine-Augusta had traditionally been a two-year school that offered associate degrees, but in recent years it transitioned most of its programs to four years. The vet tech major offered on the Bangor campus, however, remained a two-year program – one that was bleeding red ink.

So when the time came to balance the budget last year, the program – which ran a deficit of about $250,000 every year – was targeted for elimination.

The fact that its graduates had no trouble getting jobs didn’t seem to help. But “a huge outcry in the community” at the news of a possible closure did, according to Brenda McAleer, associate provost at the University of Maine-Augusta.

The school rethought its plan and instead managed to trim the losses to $100,000 annually. It then redesigned the vet tech program, adding business and biology research courses so that graduates can get work as practice managers, or in research facilities such as the Jackson Laboratory. At the same time, the school turned the vet tech track into a four-year program.

Nonetheless, last year the school was put on two years’ probation for its accreditation – which students need to sit for their licensing exam – because the program director left to return to clinical practice.

“We for the past year have not had a full-time vet on staff,” McAleer said. She added that the school has now offered the job to someone. If it’s accepted, the probationary period will end.

But the school’s decisions about the program are not universally supported. Bill Bell of the Maine Veterinary Medical Association said Maine veterinarians are not happy with the new four-year program because it means the graduates will command higher salaries than he says vets in the state can afford to pay. The median annual wage for vet technologists and technicians in 2012 was $30,290 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The unfortunate thing is our vets really don’t need four-year graduates,” Bell said. “The salary that they can pay competitively does not really justify a four-year student.”

McAleer counters that business and laboratory research skills now being taught will make the school’s graduates more employable. “If I can help you run your business, or I can design your marketing for you, or design your system to keep track of your clients, maybe that’s worth a little more,” she said.

— MEREDITH GOAD