Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks to constituents after delivering the keynote speech at the VA Adopts kick-off event, in Fairfax, July 30, 2013. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) emphasized the central importance of locally controlled public schools Thursday during a visit to T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.

In a forum with local city and school officials, he said that it’s local governments and school boards that run the schools and allocate where the money goes. And the passion of local school board members and “their love for the children and their love for the city” is ultimately “what is going to determine whether the school system is successful.”

His emphasis on local control was surprising to many parents and educators at the forum who have spent the past six months bitterly protesting a McDonnell-led initiative approved by the General Assembly this year to empower a state-level school board to take over chronically under-performing schools. Jefferson Houston School in Old Town Alexandria is on a short list of schools that would be among the first to be affected.

“It seemed like a little bit of a backtrack,” from the top-down reform plan McDonnell has championed, said P. J. Lepp, the past-president of the city-wide PTA.

McDonnell’s visit to Alexandria was part of a week-long statewide tour the governor organized to highlight his accomplishments as he winds down his four-year term and distances himself from a controversy that erupted this summer surrounding gifts and loans he received from a political supporter.

The governor said he understands the importance of giving localities “more flexibility and not just state top-down directives.” And he highlighted a long list of reforms that he said will be “very beneficial to Virginia.”

He mentioned his promotion of virtual schools, charters, and college lab schools, a 2 percent pay raise in the state share of teacher salaries this year, a renewed focus on science and technology, as well as new efforts to make sure all third grade students are reading on grade-level.

He also mentioned the more controversial introduction of A to F letter grades for schools and the so-called Opportunity Education Institution, or state takeover board.

Under the new law, control of some of the state’s persistently poorest performing schools would be handed over to an appointed board, including lawmakers, a turnaround expert, former educators and citizens. The school could be managed by a charter or another operator. Alexandria officials have argued that they have the best chance of helping the school succeed. They also say it is against the state constitution for local tax dollars to be used in any takeover effort.

The tone of the 38-minute conversation was cordial, except in the brief moments it touched on the state takeover board.

“The bottom line is these things are now the law,” McDonnell said, referring to the school report cards and the state board. “Our job is now to find out how we can work with [the local school board] to make these things work the very best they can,” he said.

Karen Graf, chairman of the Alexandria school board said it has not budged from its opposition.

“This law as written does not collaborate with the local community,” she said.