The union representing Minneapolis Public Schools support staff in contract negotiations says a growing number of aides are leaving the state's third-largest district to work in other metro schools that pay them better.

From 2011 to 2018 school years, instructional salaries — pay going to school employees such as classroom teachers, special-education staff and teacher aides — have gone up drastically. In that period, district leaders said, the average salary for educational aides increased by 31%.

Shaun Laden, president of the educational support professionals chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 1,500 support workers, said the district is not paying support workers fair wages that keep up with inflation.

"Our folks have been falling further and further behind," Laden said. "What we'll see is what we've seen, which is high turnover and high vacancy rates."

Dissatisfied union leaders recently launched an online petition to pressure the district for better pay.

Minneapolis, like other school districts, has struggled with finding enough support staff, such as special-ed assistants, cafeteria workers and bus drivers. The teachers union has criticized the ongoing worker shortage, arguing that it puts students at a disadvantage.

To date, Minneapolis Public Schools has more than 200 vacancies. At least 80 of those at the start of the 2019-20 school year were special-ed instructional aides, Laden said.

The union representing the educational support professionals is negotiating a new contract with the district for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years and calling for higher wages, affordable health insurance and improved working conditions, which they say will slow the decline and exodus of support workers.

Minneapolis school district leaders said they cannot meet those demands, arguing that the difference between what's budgeted and the union's proposal is $35 million over two years. Agreeing to the request, district officials said, would lead to steep cuts — 130 teachers or 300 educational aides.

"MPS remains committed to bargaining collaboratively with the ESP union while also working within the realities of our budget," district spokesman Dirk Tedmon said.

School support staff who work at least 20 hours a week earn health benefits and food assistance but struggle to survive on $22,000 to $32,000 a year, union leaders said.

A union survey shows nearly half of the 1,103 aides also have another job. And at school, many of them take on duties assigned to their higher-paid colleagues, Laden said.

Mary Webb-Hampton, who has been a special-ed assistant at Roosevelt High School for four school years, said she's getting burned out and wants to see adequate staffing and pay raises. She earns $18 an hour tending to students with cognitive and physical disabilities, some of whom need diaper changes, feeding and physical therapy.

"Lately, I have been waking up not feeling like I want to go to work," she said. "But I'm hanging on because I really care about the kids."