PEMBROKE – Several New Hampshire school districts have sent out a bill that they say is way past due.

The five districts of SAU 53 recently submitted invoices totaling more than $23 million to the U.S. Department of Education for unfunded special education expenses stretching back to 1999.

Superintendent of schools Peter Warburton said the bills to the federal government went out April 28. Copies of the cover letters and bills have also been sent to New Hampshire Commissioner of Education Dr. Lyonel Tracy, Gov. John Lynch and the New Hampshire congressional delegation.

The five districts in SAU 53 are Allenstown, Chichester, Deerfield, Epsom and Pembroke.

Speaking for his districts, Warburton said, “We looked at the special education costs for the past nine years, and looked at what the federal government reimbursed us.” When Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, the government also promised to fund 40 percent of the average per pupil expenditure for every student in special education. A December 2008 memorandum from the American Association of School Administrators said Congress was “barely” at 17 percent of the promised funding, despite increases in IDEA funding of nearly $1 billion per year.

The local districts didn’t need the AASA to tell them that: they had already seen special education expenses grow and government funding shrink. A letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan from the Deerfield School Board reads, “The long and well-documented history of the unpaid federal share to fund special education has strapped districts across the country, and has forced school communities everywhere to reallocate monies from regular education to fund programs and staff in special education.”

The letter also included the invoice for reimbursement, in Deerfield’s case, $5.3 million.

“We decided to be proactive,” Warburton said. While the districts used a template for the bill and letter, he said, each sent out their own correspondence.

As of May 18, they had had no response from any of the recipients. Laena Fallon, press secretary for Sen. Judd Gregg, said she hadn’t seen the letter yet, but added that mail to elected officials takes an extra two weeks because it has to be inspected for anthrax and other threats.

Mark Bergman, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes, said while they hadn’t yet seen the letter, “The congressman agrees on the unfairness of unfunded mandates.”

He said Hodes co-sponsored legislation last year to fully fund IDEA, but that the bill did not pass. He said Hodes hopes to try again this legislative session.

Will it work? The Deerfield board hopes so, writing that they “are expecting the promised 40 percent reimbursement for special education.” But even if they don’t get it, they hope to open a conversation on “how we can best promote, and pay for, an appropriate and adequate education for all students.” “Our intent is that they take us seriously,” said Bonnie Beaubien, chairman of the Deerfield board.

Beaubien, a retired school administrator, saw special education expenses grow over her career and now in her work with the Deerfield board. “This is an especially difficult economic time,” she said. “Anything we can do as a school board to help the taxpayers, we feel is our responsibility.” “The unfunded federal mandate is one reason taxes are so high in all our towns, not just Deerfield,” she said.

Beaubien added that she is a strong supporter of special education. “That whole law,” she said, “came about because of a grassroots effort. People felt students’ needs were not being met, and they wanted it changed.” She doesn’t want to turn back the clock on special ed — she just wants Deerfield’s $5,316,515.

Epsom is billing the DOE for $2,416,211, board chairman Barbara Noonan said, adding that the mandated special education expenses don’t leave a lot of money for upgrading other programs.

If the federal government starts paying its share, Noonan can think of a lot of things she’d like to do. “We need to upgrade our technology and expand the building,” she said. “Parts of this building have been in existence since the 1950s.”

Her eighth-graders, the group going on to high school this fall, haven’t had new textbooks for 20 years, Noonan said. ”We do get supplements, but 20-year-old textbooks? Give me a break.”

It would cost $65,000 to $75,000 to replace the books, and that money simply isn’t available, Noonan said.

“And we don’t have a gifted and talented program,” she said. “That would be nice too.”

But like Beaubien, Noonan expects to see a check. “We’re not giving up,” she said. “We’re hoping they’ll take us seriously.”

For more information, call Warburton or Assistant Superintendent Dr. Gail Paludi at 485-5187.