Driven by a quickening urban exodus, Baltimore County is changing so fast that blacks could make up 30 percent of the population by 2005 -- double the percentage in the last census.
A new forecast shows that the county is growing more rapidly than expected, mainly due to blacks who are leaving Baltimore.
The impact already can be seen in county schools, where the racial mix has changed in many classrooms. Meanwhile, an influx of more working class and poor people -- a shift from earlier trends -- threatens to burden some schools and older communities. And in a county where no black ever has been elected to a council seat or other local office, the new migration is likely to be felt in politics.
In recent years, the county has lured professionals such as State Sen. Delores G. Kelley and struggling single parents such as Rosalind Seibles. Each, in her own way, was seeking opportunity.
Senator Kelley, a communications professor at Coppin State College, moved from Northwest Baltimore to Randallstown last year so she could run in a new legislative district designed to give the county's burgeoning black population a voice.
Ms. Seibles, a 26-year-old mother of four, moved two years ago from a rundown house in a crime-ridden West Baltimore neighborhood to a renovated, subsidized apartment in Lansdowne.
"I like it out here," Ms. Seibles said last week as she returned with her 2-year-old daughter from walking her three older children to Riverview Elementary School. Recalling the frequent gunshots and crime back on Stockton Street in West Baltimore, she added, "To me, it's like being on the other side of the world."
The county's black population grew by 58 percent between 1980 and 1990, when mostly middle class blacks moved in large numbers to Woodlawn and the Liberty Road corridor. After the 1990 census, many predicted that the exodus from the city to Baltimore County would slow.
Newer trends could see the black population increase from its 1990 level of 15 percent to 25 percent or 30 percent by 2005, said Dunbar Brooks, a demographics expert with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. By comparison, 3.5 percent of the county's 1970 population was black.
The trends differ in two respects from earlier expectations based on the 1990 census, said Mr. Brooks, a lifelong Dundalk-area resident and one of two black county school board members.
First, the county's total population is increasing faster than expected. That's because more people are moving from Baltimore to the county than are leaving the county. Mr. Brooks estimates that the county's population will range from 713,500 to 720,000 by the end of the year, while the city's is expected to drop well below 700,000.
Meanwhile, more of those coming to the county are working-class or poor people with incomes of less than $20,000 a year, said Mr. Brooks. Many are moving to older rental housing in far southwest and southeastern sections of the county -- blue-collar areas that county government officials see as vulnerable to housing speculators and blight.
"This does show that the city and county are intrinsically linked," said state planner Michel A. Lettre. "The welfare of both are tied."
County officials reinforce that view. "We're an aging suburb," County Administrative Officer Merreen E. Kelly told business and community leaders gathered last week to talk about the area's problems and potential. "If the city is not successful, the county will not be successful."
Redistricting after the 2000 census could bring more black elected officials in the county, although Senator Kelley remains uncertain.
"You don't really know the distribution [of new voters]," said Senator Kelley. "It could mean anything." She and the three delegates in her new 10th District are the county's first and only black elected officials.
The growing number of city children moving to county schools carries other implications for School Superintendent Stuart Berger, who has struggled to accommodate 20,000 more students since 1990 with limited resources.
"Many of these youngsters come to us with greater needs," Dr. Berger said at a recent County Council budget review session. "We have 35 social workers now. A few years ago we had none.
"It's a whole different world and [older county residents] don't see it."
The superintendent has been fighting to get more money for education at a time when county revenue growth is flat and political pressures prevent tax increases.
One hard measure of Mr. Brooks' estimates are enrollment reports compiled by the school system. From 1990 to last October, the number of African-American students has increased 44 percent.
Some schools in the older southeastern and southwestern areas have experienced major racial changes during that period.
For example, at Riverview Elementary in Lansdowne, the number of black students increased from 96 to 170 over the four years. "We are seeing a significant number of students from the city," said Riverview Principal Thomas M. Small III.
In Essex, the same trend of rising black enrollment exists. For example, at Sandalwood Elementary, the African-American population jumped 86 percent in four years and at nearby Mars Estates Elementary, the black population rose 67 percent.
The infusion of low-income city residents to the county's inner suburbs -- areas that already may be economically stressed -- means heightened vulnerability to housing speculators, county officials fear.
Meanwhile, along the Liberty Road corridor, the dominant trend of the 1980s -- middle class blacks displacing whites -- has continued. For example, the number of black students at Randallstown's Winand Elementary rose from 192 to 407, while the number of white students decreased from 266 to 90 over the same period.
Without strong action, areas such as Essex, Dundalk, Middle River, Lansdowne and Baltimore Highlands could decay, officials said. As the children and grandchildren of senior citizens -- another fast-growing group within the county -- move to outlying suburbs, the community base quickly can erode.
Roger B. Hayden, the previous county executive, and C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, the current one, targeted those areas for strengthening through the Community Conservation program.
Mr. Ruppersberger was the host for a Towson meeting last week to bring federal, state and county housing officials together to move against problem areas, including the sprawling, long-neglected Riverdale Village apartment complex in Middle River.
"Government can't do it all," Mr. Ruppersberger said. "But we can enable communities and individuals to do it themselves. We're going to the toughest areas of the county."
P. David Fields, the county's innovative former planning director, is heading the drive to preserve "inside-the-Beltway" communities and prevent them from succumbing to the blight that has left thousands of decaying city homes vacant.
He said the challenge is to make older, moderately priced homes attractive again to young couples who want their own places but are hard-pressed to buy new homes for $150,000 or more. The county's salvation is to repair roads and other public areas, strengthen schools, and eliminate rundown apartment complexes -- altering perceptions of these communities, he said.
To do that, he said, the county government and its citizens must recognize the fundamental trends in the suburban exodus. "The people who are coming out are different," Mr. Fields said. "They're seeking cheap rents and safety. We think it's the same middle class as 1980-'90, but it's totally different, and we're just not prepared for it."