Over the summer Maine voters received recorded phone messages that warned, “Their spending is driving our loved ones from their homes!”

Another call claimed, “They think we are made of money,” while another asked in exasperation, “What part of ‘no’ don’t they understand?”

Based on the tone of these “robocalls” you would think they originated from a political party well-heeled Super PAC in the closing days of a hotly contested state or federal campaign.

But you would be wrong.

These calls were sponsored by the Concerned Families of Rural School Unit 18, a collection of local citizens who are successfully holding the political line against school budget increases in Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and my town of Sidney.

The success of this local coalition in defeating school budget referendums will save RSU 18 property taxpayers about $1 million. The group has also created a model for how small but energized groups can use social media and low-cost outreach tools to exert a large influence on the school budget process in Maine.

School budgets were also rejected this summer in RSUs that include the communities of Jay, Livermore, Livermore Falls, Saco, Dayton, Old Orchard Beach, Bingham, Moscow, Lincoln, Mattawamkeag and Chester. RSU 18 appears to be the only case where robocalls were employed as a campaign tactic.

For those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with them, a robocall is a recorded phone message that can be sent to thousands of voters in minutes through the use of computerized auto dialing. Robocalls are annoying but targeted, effective and cheap — you can call every voter in Sidney or Belgrade for less than $200.

The brief and verbal nature of a robocall often leads to questions about adherence to campaign finance and disclosure laws. Calls for political candidates seeking state or federal office are supposed to have been paid for and authorized by disclosures like any mailer or television commercial.

Maine law does not, however, require disclosures on any campaign communications surrounding state or local ballot initiatives. Nor are there any registration requirements for small committees like the Concerned Families of RSU 18.

While Concerned Families of RSU 18 is not required to register, it did not hide its identities or intentions. Each of the calls featured the voice of a local selectmen opposed to the school budgets and a disclaimer was added at the end of each call.

Then-Gov. Baldacci’s school consolidation law established new mandates for school budget approval in every Maine community that includes a budget validation referendum. This up-or-down, secret-ballot vote is open to any registered voter.

The barriers to participation in the validation referendum are much lower than taking part in a multi-hour budget meeting.

Nevertheless, voter participation can still be relatively low — less than 14% of registered voters in RSU 18 took part in the referendum earlier this month.

Turning out your vote is key and the Concerned Families of RSU 18 know what they are doing. I personally received at least three robocalls, a number of emails, and was contacted directly by budget opponents.

RSU 18 Superintendent Gary Smith is now working on a third budget proposal that will flat-line spending to last year’s levels, cutting just over $1 million in proposed school spending. A vote on the third version of the budget will occur in early October.

Smith, who prior to this summer had never experienced a failed budget vote, suggests that the age of political innocence in school budgeting is over.

To Smith’s credit, his initial frustration with the budget rejection is being channeled into a vigorous commitment to improve communication and community engagement for future budget cycles.

One area where RSU 18 will, we hope, make some progress is in the use of its All Call System, a phone and email-based platform that delivers school news, including budget vote alerts, to parents and staff.

No matter how neutral the messaging, it is fair to question the appropriateness of using a taxpayer-funded system to deliver a voter alert to a targeted and likely supportive group of voters.

If the system is going to be used for budget vote alerts the call universe should be expanded to include all registered voters.

It is important to note that the political activism we see around local school budgets can also lead to higher spending. Supporters of Brunswick schools pushed through a significant property tax increase this summer to offset a $2.4 million reduction in state aid.

Spending may go up or it may go down, but the conclusion remains the same. Small but energized local groups now have the opportunity as well as the political tools and tactics to exert a disproportionate influence on school budget decisions.

Dan Demeritt is a Republican political consultant and public relations specialist. He is a former campaign aide and communications director for Gov. Paul LePage.