The Minneapolis public schools expected to enroll 900 new students this school year. They got two.

Now the district must cut $5.6 million from its budget and reevaluate its five-year enrollment plan, including the way it stacks up against competition from charters and other schools.

“For a long time we were the big player in town. That has created a sense of complacency,” said Robert Doty, the district’s chief operations officer. “We haven’t focused on student retention and student recruitment as others in the market have.”

More troubling, the district now has the lowest “market share” — the percentage of all school-age students in Minneapolis — since 2000.

As a result, the district is operating in what Doty calls “triage” mode, looking at ways to recruit and retain students in a manner similar to colleges and universities. “We need to fight for every single student … in this district,” Doty said.

But some school board members say the district will be unable to boost enrollment when it lags so many other school districts in low-income and minority student achievement.

“We need to be honest. We want people back, but we haven’t changed,” board member Tracine Asberry said Tuesday night at a meeting where Doty presented the new data. “I don’t think parents are trying to buy anything. They just want the basics, a quality education.”

When it set enrollment goals, Doty said, the district failed to consider the growth of charter schools and the decline of students in other districts enrolling in Minneapolis schools. For the past several years the district has also faced a sort of revolving door, in which 3,000 to 4,000 new students enroll during the school year, but an equal number leave.

The district is still studying why the students leave and from which schools, but Doty said Zone 1, which mostly covers north Minneapolis, has lost many students. “We have to drill down to the district level and ask ourselves what is causing students to not go to their community school,” Doty said.

About 20,000 students in Minneapolis attended charter schools, private schools or schools in other districts in 2013, compared with about 34,000 enrolled in Minneapolis public schools. The number of students enrolled in charters may increase as charters continue to expand. Hiawatha Academies, which have a large population of low-income Latino students, will open a high school in 2015, four years ahead of schedule, because demand has been so high.

“We can’t just assume any longer that students will come and stay just because we are here,” Doty said.

In 2013, the school board approved a five-year plan assuming that enrollment would increase 10 percent by 2018. The plan included $155 million for construction and expansion of schools. Doty said those numbers will have to be re-evaluated.

The district is working with a state demographer, a housing consultant and its data team to create a more accurate enrollment forecast. This time it will take into account the impact of charter schools and other districts.

By missing its initial projection, the district now has to cut millions from its budget, with the possibility of cuts at its central office, a spending freeze and a review of existing contracts. Doty said the district hopes to avoid cuts to the classroom.

‘The problem is the product’

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Doty and other staff members gave the board an update on the grim enrollment numbers and proposed the creation of a comprehensive marketing plan.

Marketing would be targeted especially at parents of students moving from elementary to middle school, and middle school to high school, because those are points when many students leave.

But some board members said better marketing isn’t good enough. Board member Alberto Monserrate said the district should not be focusing on marketing when it’s failing to address its vast achievement gap.

“We need to stop our obsession with market share,” Monserrate said at the board meeting. “We are not a business. At some point you have to have the right product to market.”

Schools that have traditionally excelled academically and have a small percentage of low-income students, such as Southwest High School, “do not have marketing problems,” Monserrate said.

“North High, Roosevelt and Edison are having enrollment problems, and the problem is the product,” he said.

Doty said he agrees on the need to improve student achievement, but said he’s confident that the district’s new strategic plan will address the issue. The plan will require schools to increase math and reading scores by 5 percent every year for the next five years. For students of color, leaders want those standards to increase by 8 percent each year.

“I don’t disagree with what several board members said,” Doty said. “But I also know that we have a story to tell and it is not all bad. There are many aspects to that story that are positive and worth telling.”