Wearing dark suits and trailed by television cameras, the two men strode to the front of the room, smiling and greeting their audience like the seasoned politicians they are.
But Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin had no intention of delivering a dry address on tax cuts, health policy or the race for president.
Their visit to Chantel Harris' fourth-grade class at Owings Mills Elementary School yesterday was designed to impart a message of civic duty and representation specifically tailored for a group of 22 well-behaved 9- and 10-year-olds.
With the federal government ready to deliver forms for the 2000 Census in about two weeks, Ruppersberger and Cardin wanted to teach some of Baltimore County's younger residents the importance of participating in the once-a-decade head count that affects everything from congressional representation to where movie theaters are built.
"For every [census form] that doesn't get filled out, we lose $1,000," said Cardin. "That's a lot of money."
County officials estimate that 10,680 residents were not counted in the 1990 Census, depriving the county of $110 million in federal funds for programs during the past decade.
To reduce the ranks of the uncounted, Baltimore County is reaching out to the homeless and members of minority groups. But yesterday, the two of the region's leading politicians also asked schoolchildren to remind their parents to take part.
"Let's call it `census soldiers,' " Ruppersberger said. "You're out there trying to get people counted."
Ruppersberger explained to the class how the census could be important. Census information that showed Owings Mills' rapid growth encouraged General Cinemas to build a multiplex theater in the area, the county executive said. When he asked pupils if they had been to the theater, every hand in Harris' classroom shot up.
Yesterday, Baltimore County sent home sample census forms and information sheets with each of the school system's 107,000 students. Actual forms will be delivered by mail beginning March 15.