Aria Campbell has held retail gigs and corporate jobs. She's worked for the city and the county, even had a stint as a flight attendant. But she'd never "absolutely loved" her work until she became an educational support professional in Minneapolis Public Schools six years ago.

Still, Campbell's family and friends have encouraged her to look for a new role, one with less stress and higher pay. She resists the idea.

"To me, this job is a profession," Campbell said. "A school couldn't function without its support staff."

Wages for support staffers have proven a key issue in the negotiations between the Minneapolis teachers union and the school district. The city's educators began their strike Tuesday after union and school officials were unable to reach an agreement on that matter as well as class-size caps, increased mental health support for students and "competitive" salaries for teachers.

Superintendent Ed Graff said Tuesday that the two sides are "still very far apart."

The union is seeking significant raises for its 1,200 education support professionals and its 4,000 teachers. The money at stake for teacher salaries is far greater than that of support staff, though teachers have rallied around a "liveable wage" for educational support staff.

Greta Callahan, president of the union's teacher chapter, said raising the starting wage for support staff has been the union's "hard line" in negotiations. District leaders said this week that they prioritize doing so as well, but noted the union has not budged from its initial proposal.

After the parties met for 90 minutes of mediation Wednesday, the district posted an overview of what it says are the latest teacher and support staff wage proposals. The union's amounts to a 21% raise for teachers over two years at a cost of $257.7 million, according to the post, while the district's offer would equal a 6.4% raise over two years at a cost of $40.6 million.

For educational support professionals, the union is proposing a 23-44% raise over two years, which the district says totals between $27.4 million and $43.8 million. The district's own proposal, an 8% wage increase over two years, comes with a $10.8 million price, according to the post.

"We know we need to pay our ESPs more," Graff said Tuesday. "That is something we are committed to doing. We just need to make sure we are doing that in a way that is financially sustainable for this district."

Minneapolis Public Schools has projected a $21.5 million budget shortfall next year, despite the use of $75 million in one-time relief money. District leaders say that gap is due, in large part, to declining enrollment and state underfunding.

The educational support professional category encompasses more than a dozen roles. Those employees provide help in classrooms, work one-on-one with students with special needs, help with before- and after-school programs and assist with transportation and language translation.

Union leaders have maintained their commitment to give the majority of support staff a chance to work 40 hours a week and make at least $35,000 a year.

Depending on the role, support staff make about $15.45 to $26 an hour, under their latest contract, which expired last summer. But because they don't work during school breaks and are part time, the union says a first-year educational support professional makes about $24,000 in a year, and more than two-thirds of the district's support staff work side jobs to supplement that income.

Support-staff salaries can be hard to compare across school districts because of the variety of roles and differences in how districts reward seniority. But the range in hourly rates in several surrounding metro-area districts is similar to that in Minneapolis.

In St. Paul, where the teachers union and the district reached a tentative agreement Monday and averted a strike, the union has said the pact includes raises for support staff.

State and national teachers union leaders have said the issue is not limited to Twin Cities' schools.

"Living wages for our educational support professionals is something that we hear everywhere," said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, at a recent news conference.

Campbell said the strike has brought public awareness to her wages — she makes about $25,000 a year — but she wonders whether people understand her many duties at Transitions Plus, a program for 18- to 21-year-old students with learning disabilities. She helps students eat and go to the bathroom or walk to class. She also responds to students who are acting out.

Tequila Laramee, an associate educator at Bethune Community School, was named Education Minnesota's educational support professional of the year.

She wanted to be an educator because she didn't see many Black teachers when she was a student.

About half of the district's support staff are people of color, said Shaun Laden, the president of the union's educational support professionals chapter. And this year about 300 support-staff positions went unfilled, he added.

Raising wages for those jobs, Laramee said, would help attract and retain educators of color like her — a goal that the union and district have both expressed.

"We're educators. And we do this job because we have a passion for it," Laramee said. "We know we could get more money per hour somewhere else."