Back in March of 2020, things were looking up for Chiara Plastina. She was weeks away from receiving a diploma at RED Academy, a Toronto tech school, and had a job lined up.
Then her world fell apart.
“The school just randomly decided to close their doors and left all the students high and dry,” said Plastina. “They also withheld my diploma and kept my tuition money.”
For Plastina, that money was a small fortune. She paid $17,000 for two diploma programs at RED Academy which offered degrees and internships in web development and digital marketing. She has no idea where the money went.
Haidee Kongpreecha is also out thousands of dollars – not in tuition paid, but money owed to her in back pay. She was part of RED Academy’s leadership team and, like many other former employees, is still waiting for money she is owed. She is currently owed nearly $13,000.
“I can’t afford to not have that money paid to me as I am sure many of our colleagues feel the same,” said Kongpreecha. “Especially having been laid off without any income for several months.”
RED Academy abruptly shutdown in March of 2020. In a zoom meeting, leaders blamed the closure on the financial fallout from COVID-19 but several employees told CityNews there were financial troubles at the Academy long before the pandemic.
CityNews has obtained emails indicating the school’s leaders were desperately searching for investors to keep the school running in December 2019, three months before any pandemic lockdown measures went into effect.
“They had missed pay several times before we actually closed and that was an indication for everyone that there were financial troubles,” Kongpreecha said.
RED Academy started in Vancouver in 2015 but quickly expanded opening campuses in Toronto and London, U.K.
In a statement announcing the closure, RED’s Chief Commercial Officer Roy Agostino said, “Our immediate objective is to graduate our current cohort of students and support our incoming students with their transition.”
The statement provided web links directing students to government agencies that could help place them in programs at other similar schools.
Students and staff blame school’s founder
One of the founders is Colin Mansell left RED Academy in 2019 and was not involved in its closure.
“I resigned from RED and all of its active subsidiaries in 2019,” Mansell said. He went on to call the closure “deeply saddening.” But those now seeking payments say Mansell should carry some of the blame.
“I definitely feel like he does, he was a founder and was involved very much in the early days of the business,” said Kongpreecha.
In corporate registry information obtained by CityNews, both Mansell and Roy Agostino are listed as board of directors residing in Canada.
In response, Mansell, said in a statement to CityNews that the company listed in the federal registry “is a dormant subsidiary that was never active.”
While people wait for refunds or back pay, CityNews has discovered Mansell has started advertising a new tech school, very similar to RED in Singapore. In fact, for months after RED Academy closed, the school’s former website re-directed people to Mansell’s new Singapore school.
“I visited the website and some of that website copy was exactly the same as on the RED academy’s website,” Kongpreecha said.
CityNews asked Mansell why he started a new school without first taking care of those left behind by the one he founded but he did not respond.
Former students and employees say once RED closed, the communication line to school leaders also shutdown. Many of them had questions that went unanswered. The big one, where’s the money now?
“I would like to know if it was all worth it. If it was worth hurting so many people—if it was worth ruining the lives of so many young people with a passion for design,” said Plastina.
The long road to financial payback
After RED Academy closed, The Ministry of Colleges and Universities stepped in to offer students either partial tuition reimbursements or placement in other programs at similar schools.
Plastina tells CityNews she chose to be placed in another school after the ministry offered a reimbursement of just under $2,000, not the $17,000 she had paid to RED.
Plastina also only received one diploma from a competing school even though she paid RED Academy for two diploma programs.
As for former employees, they are still fighting to get back pay they say they’re owed.
Many have filed claims with The Ministry of Labour but so far, nearly one year after RED Academy closed, no reimbursements have been made.
“The Ministry is working with the former directors to address the specifics of each claim,” Agostino told CityNews. Neither he nor a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour was able to give us a timeline as to when those workers might see compensation.
While the ending to RED’s story has left a negative impact, former students and employees are hoping their hard work isn’t tarnished by the latest headlines.
“There is no question about the dedication of every person who came through those doors to support each other every single day,” Kongpreecha said. “It’s hard to forget the really good things. Sure, the executive leadership was not very accountable but there is a lot to be thankful for.”
“The instructors were amazing, and I did learn a lot while I was there.” Plastina said. “But as for how the executives handled this in the end, I just think an apology would be nice and admitting what they did was wrong.”