Take a walk down Thorn Lane, past the new houses with swimming pools and three-car garages, and you would think you had arrived at the picture-perfect neighborhood elementary school.
Dozens of bicycles are neatly parked in racks outside the red brick building. Sixth-graders' drawings of what they want to be when they grow up – a soccer player, a chef, a superhero – hang near the lobby. Before lunch, smiling students parade by in a single-file line, chattering along on their way to the cafetorium.
"It's deceiving," said Kim Breiland, a third-grade teacher and parent of two students at the school. "It's very deceiving."
Behind this façade of an idyllic suburban school lies the truth: Chesterfield Elementary School doesn't have enough money, and its students are paying the price.
There's no remedial reading program here, no school chorus, no clubs or after-school activities. There are too many kids and too few computers, only one guidance counselor for more than 750 students, and a budget so tight library and band were nearly eliminated last year, only to be spared at the 11th hour.
"I flat out will admit that if we knew about what was going on we wouldn't have moved within Chesterfield," Breiland said in a moment of brutal honesty. "As much as I love living here, it's super stressful to see what's unraveled."
How did this happen here, in an affluent South Jersey town with one of the region's highest average property tax bills?
The answer is simple: Chesterfield School District is getting cheated by the state, local officials say.
The pre-K to sixth-grade district in Burlington County receives just 20 cents for every dollar it's owed in state funding, worse than any of the nearly 600 school districts in New Jersey.
Statewide, about two-thirds of districts also have been shorted on state aid for the better part of a decade. Like Chesterfield, many of them are overtaxing residents and slashing programs, often while spending less than the state says is needed to provide a quality education.
State lawmakers think they can fix the problem and eventually give each district the funding it is owed. But saving Chesterfield comes at the cost of taking funding from other districts flush with state aid — an idea so politically treacherous it could stop the plan dead in its tracks.