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Phillip Tutor: When an Anniston address becomes a liability

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Long term, the worst thing that could happen to Anniston isn’t Oxford’s ascension or the Army’s departure or the city’s confounding addiction to missed opportunities.

It’s de-annexation.

No one wants to talk about it. Not publicly, at least. But in private get-togethers and informal chats, a modest number of Annistonians in a handful of neighborhoods are poking around the edges of this potential nightmare situation for City Hall.

The secret they want kept silent is oozing out, a drip here, a drab there.

Their reasons are varied: frustrations over the city’s track, desires to improve property values, beliefs that Anniston City Schools are the albatrosses residents can’t escape. People are tired of it. Somewhere, perhaps prominently, the City Council’s inability to avoid getting sucked into Councilmen Ben Little and David Reddick’s habitual shenanigans likely plays a role, too.

This is about race, and it’s not about race. That’s why de-annexation is both the last thing and worst thing that should occur. Above all, the vision of majority-white, higher-income neighborhoods bolting from a racially divided city and its nearly all-black public schools would be catastrophic.

Economically, at least, I get it. My family has lived for more than 25 years in Golden Springs, a few blocks from the elementary school and so close to the new Burger King that you can smell the grease from my driveway. And it doesn’t take a Realtor’s license to understand that resale values almost anywhere in the city would creep in the desired direction if Anniston’s schools were a magnet for job-creators and economic developers.

I don’t fault them for it, but I suspect that the Annistonians asking about the de-annexation process aren’t bothered by this truth — that three decades of white flight from Anniston City Schools have played a profound role in the system’s re-segregation and the suggestion that there are two Annistons, not one.

It’s telling that some Anniston churches include a stipend in their pastors’ salaries to pay for private school tuition. The “Anniston tax,” as it’s called in whispers, isn’t a myth.

De-annexation isn’t a simple process. It involves formal petition requests, legal counsel, council votes and legislative matters. Petitions can be declined, and are. And they often get messy. That’s what happened a few years back in Shelby County, where a Chelsea neighborhood wanted to sever ties with Pelham because of a school zoning plan.

I could imagine landowners along Buckelew Bridge Road south of Interstate 20 wanting to shed their Anniston address. That’s an Anniston appendage dipping low into Oxford that’s hard to explain on a map.

I could imagine homeowners in Edgefield Farm along Greenbrier-Dear Road — where homes routinely sell north of $500,000 — wanting to shed their Anniston address.

And I could imagine landowners at McClellan — particularly residential landowners — are eager to have their properties zoned for Calhoun County Schools.

In practical terms, those hypotheticals would leave Anniston with an even smaller population, a less-diverse population and a diminished tax base. The city’s finances undoubtedly would suffer. Worse still would be the optics.

Remember, this is about race, and it’s not about race. Anniston is a twisted pretzel of issues, some related, others not. Little and Reddick’s crusade against former City Manager Jay Johnson was reprehensible, but they shoulder no direct blame for the reputation of Anniston’s schools or the violent crime rates from some of the neighborhoods in their wards.

What they are, though, is part of the big-tent problem, not part of the solution.

Johnson’s abrupt resignation is indicative of everything that bedevils Anniston. It was unfortunate. It was caused by pettiness and immaturity. It highlights the divisions. It empowers those who wrongly believe Anniston is no different today than it was before courts ordered the city to integrate its schools and activists managed to get the main library to loan books to black people. And it represents another regrettable headline that arises when someone types “Anniston” into Google, as economic developers routinely do. Read and weep.

It’s easy for haters to trash Anniston because Anniston so often is its own worst enemy, especially down on Gurnee Avenue. That’s why Anniston’s future depends on three distinct events: strong biracial leadership; Ward 2 and 3 representatives who eschew the worst of Little and Reddick’s tendencies; and a populace that increasingly sees an Anniston address as a positive to enjoy, not a liability to escape.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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